The world has changed over the past six months, including our education environments. As many schools shift to the “new normal” of remote and hybrid learning, basic classroom protocols have turned upside-down. Understanding how to record a meeting, properly mute oneself, and navigate different communications streams have become essential skills for educators, faculty, students, and even parents. And it has become necessary for IT professionals to identify the right devices and digital tools for their school.

This transformation of the traditional education environment has been challenging and has required major overhauls of systems that have long been in place. One school district that embraced the change is Puyallup School District in Washington state. Puyallup successfully shifted to remote learning in March through widespread access to devices, integrated technologies, virtual trainings, and open collaboration for more than 23,000 students with Microsoft Education.

Now, Puyallup’s leaders share how they did it. As you prepare for the upcoming school year, consider their best practices for creating a more inclusive, equitable, and flexible learning environment for everyone.

Promote educator and student success with integrated learning tools

When schools closed in March, Puyallup was already prepared with Microsoft’s digital learning technologies. More than four years ago, the district proactively embraced Windows 10 devices, Office 365 Education, Intune for Education, and cloud-based educational solutions to improve instruction, achievement, and equity.

“Everything we’d done to move online… prepared us for COVID-19,” said Mark Vetter, the district’s Director of Innovation and Learning Technologies. Implementing Microsoft technology—from devices and applications to single sign-on functionality—allowed Vetter’s team to be both cost-effective and efficient as they moved the entire district to remote learning. With so many tools, Vetter says the seamless integration was critical for faculty and students while learning remotely.

“At $250 per student, we are the lowest cost 1:1 district in the South Puget Sound,” Vetter said, referencing the district’s student-to-device ratio. The affordable, large-scale integration across the district created a smooth transition for Puyallup staff and ultimately enabled better student outcomes. “The Microsoft platform just works, and that’s a game-changer.”

Extend equitable resources beyond in-person classroom settings

Vetter also worked to provide a device for every student in the district. This fall Puyallup will deploy about 23,000 Windows 10 devices for students and another 3,000 for faculty and support staff to ensure everyone has access to critical technology during remote learning. The district will also provide 850 hotspots for students without access to the Internet or an LTE connection.

Vetter understood that learning remotely poses unique challenges for many students. “The learning divide still exists,” he said. “And it may increase when we don’t have [students] present [in the classroom]. We have to think about the kids who don’t have family support, who haven’t been read to all summer.” Integrated technology can help fill the gap by providing educators with a way to extend one-on-one support that children need in order to address learning, social, and emotional needs in the absence of in-person meetings, Vetter said.

“We need to work harder to engage kids at the highest level. I think we’re ready, but it’s our most important charge.”

Ensure back-to-school readiness with trainings and resources

Many Puyallup educators were unfamiliar with the ins-and-outs of Microsoft’s digital learning offerings when the pandemic hit. Nancy Nelson, one of the district’s Instructional Coaches for Technology, began creating professional development trainings in March so educators were equipped to teach remotely.

“We were concerned that teachers would continue the same face-to-face practices, but remotely. The last thing you want is a kid sitting in six consecutive meetings every day,” said Nelson. “Teachers already know how to teach. They have the skills; we just needed to take those skills and shift them to what works [for a remote environment].”

Nelson worked with Vetter’s team of IT professionals to develop virtual trainings for teachers. These sessions included technical information, like how to use Microsoft Teams and OneNote, and advice for the new environment, such as offering students flexibility and maintaining positivity.

“If a music teacher wonders ‘how do I teach choir remotely?’ we wanted to show them how to find the answer using Microsoft tools,” said Vetter. “We’re trying to change their mindset on how technology can make learning and engagement better.”

The trainings encouraged teachers to make time during remote learning to check on students and let them socialize, which students “missed tremendously,” said Nelson. “We also suggested that teachers put a schedule out a week ahead… so that families could have wiggle room and adjust,” Nelson added.

These professional development trainings gave Puyallup educators the confidence they needed to continue teaching. Now, in advance of the new school year, Nelson and team are facilitating more virtual trainings—some required, and some recommended—for teachers and support staff across the district. Microsoft Education also provides teachers, faculty, and IT admins with free professional development training and tools to prepare for remote and hybrid learning.

Provide flexibility and family trainings, so parents can support students

Teachers were not the only ones offered trainings. After listening to parents across the district, a team of instructional coaches created “Family University,” a series of more than 50 short videos for parents to learn Microsoft tools and support their children. The videos were especially helpful for parents of children in kindergarten and first grade, who did not understand how to navigate the platforms.

“For some young children, this may be the first time they’re using a computer,” said Nelson. “They needed a lot of parent intervention to get through the work. The [Family University] videos walked parents through the various platforms, answering questions like: When should I shut my computer down? How do I download the free Microsoft Suite?”

This helped both parents and students understand the new classroom environment so they could focus on the learning material. Microsoft Education also offers free resources for students and their families to ensure back-to-school readiness.

Word is spreading about Puyallup’s mastery of the new normal. Over the past several months, 14 districts across the U.S. have reached out to Vetter and Nelson to discuss Puyallup’s success, they said. Blending some of their tactics with your own may help ensure your students can continue to learn anywhere.