Adjusting to Distance Learning Actually Feels Like "Business As Usual" at Norris School District

Q&A   23 April 2020
By Johnna Noll, Norris School District


Everyone—from our staff to our learners to our parents—has been so open-minded about what learning looks like during this moment. It’s made everyone feel like this isn’t all that bad. It’s business as usual. It’s learning.

Johnna Noll
Executive Director

Q: How much time did Norris Academy have to prepare for the transition to distance learning?

Johnna: In Wisconsin, the governor’s order came out on Friday afternoon, March 13th. The order said schools had to be closed by Wednesday, March 18th. Essentially, we had two working days to make the transition. However, before the governor’s order came out, we had already been thinking through what we would do if schools were closed.

I’m immunocompromised, so I had already been isolated at home the previous week. And, even if schools weren’t ordered to be closed, we wanted to make sure we could serve any students and families who felt uncomfortable being in a crowded space. If they wanted to connect virtually, we were willing to shift their conferring schedule to be virtual and work with them on a case-by-case basis.

With all of that planning already happening, the governor’s announcement didn’t cause much disruption. We were well equipped to take immediate action—spending most of our time making sure our families were prepared after the order was made.

This was absolutely huge. We didn’t have to worry about digging up instructional materials or making sure our kids had an online platform to connect with their peers, learning specialists, coaches, and mentors. All we needed to ensure was that our families that were on campus* with us were equipped in their home environment with internet and computers. Otherwise, we were ready to continue with our regular learning process.

*Norris Academy has young learners who are enrolled in their virtual academy, which is why Johnna specifically mentions their on-campus families.

Q: What actions were made to ensure every family was consistently communicated with?

Johnna: As soon as the governor’s order was made, the staff divided and conquered. Every staff member took responsibility for communicating with an equal number of families. We simply contacted each family to let them know how we’d be making the transition. We all made sure we had the same talking points, so we didn’t cause any confusion.

Through our conversations (all on that Friday), we determined which families would need tech support, who might be concerned about childcare if they were still needing to go to work, and how we would ensure all of our students were well fed.

Over the weekend, we kicked into high gear to help support the unique needs of each family. For families without the necessary technology, we had our IT person prepare iPads we regularly used during on-campus learning. Then, organized pickup or delivery schedules for families to obtain the devices on Monday. By Wednesday, we had all but one learner connected online.

We initially sent that learner an iPad with 3G, but the cell signal at their home was too weak. So, we got in touch with our local internet provider to figure out how we could get that home equipped with Wi-Fi. Once that was sorted out, we officially had everyone online.

Q: How are Norris learners interacting with their educators and peers each day?

Johnna: Norris Academy has specialists (generally equivalent to teachers) and coaches (generally equivalent to classroom aids) with conferring schedules for every learner we serve. As a general rule, each learner confers with their specialist at least once a day and has at least two conferring sessions with a coach per day. They also have at least one daily wellness check with an engagement specialist.

During our first week of transition, we invited parents to join in on their child’s first conferring call so they would understand how often their child would be connecting with our staff. Right now, every learner confers with our staff anywhere from two to six times per day depending on their needs. Our specialists and coaches are all working together to ensure every learner has the support they need to continue along their pathways of learning.

Given all of this, we haven’t missed a beat with learning. And, in fact, our learners are securing competencies a little bit more quickly right now than they were when they were all on site. It’s an ironic result of not having as much social distraction, even though we know the social side of learning is hugely important. The social isolation piece is also something we’re paying attention to—how it’s impacting our learners.


We’re able to identify where more support might be needed and create plans to provide that support effectively

Johnna Noll
Executive Director

The easiest way to do that right now is by keeping track of when learners miss a conferring session or, when they do show up, making observations of their engagement levels. With this data, we’re able to identify where more support might be needed and create plans to provide that support effectively.

To help keep our community feeling like a community, we have group meetings led by our coaches. We’ll have anywhere from 3-12 learners on a Google Hangout, and they’ll talk about things like, “What’s unique about yourself?” or they’ll do some type of show-and-tell with things around their house. We use these group meetings to have some fun with the kids and create space for them to interact with each other.

We’ve even planned a spirit week where each day everyone is invited to dress up based on the day’s theme. We had a “dress for success” day where everyone would hop online in their suits and ties or other business attire. We had a tropical vacation day to help fill the void of not having a typical spring break. We keep creating little ways to bring us all together, while we stay physically apart.

One of our coaches lives near a lake, so she’s been going out onto the lake every morning in her kayak, or she’ll simply sit near the water at her picnic table on video and host “mindful moments” where the kids can start their days with some peace and calm before digging into their work.

Q: What are some unexpected challenges that have popped up during this time of distance learning?

Johnna: When you are serving young people based on their individual needs and interests, you always have unexpected happenings. One of our learners didn’t like the way we were using Google Hangouts and making him jump in and out of different rooms every time he had to join a group meeting or conferring session.

So, to make things less chaotic on his end, we simply gave him a single link that he would keep on throughout the day and our specialists and coaches would hop on whenever their meetings were scheduled. It’s a small thing, but it made him the happiest guy in the world.

We’ve had to do some device changes for a couple of kids who had a really hard time with the iPad and preferred using a different device. We’ve been able to get a hold of some of our refurbished laptops and upgrade devices for some kids. These are a few small tweaks we’ve made, but they go a long way.

In terms of our actual learning model, we’ve had the opportunity to build more foundational pathways than we’ve previously used when our learners are on campus. These foundational pathways provide a nice starting point for young people to engage with content before co-creating more personalized and relevant paths.


It really gets me thinking about what added value the building provides, and whatever that value is, how it can be created without it.

Johnna Noll
Executive Director

At Norris, every learner has a plan with short- and long-term goals. And, to achieve those goals, they embark on various learning pathways. Many of those pathways include extended learning opportunities that take place in the community or with community mentors. Naturally, there were barriers to that, so we needed to create new learning opportunities that weren’t dependent on community access.

Building these new pathways hasn’t been ideal because they are pre-determined, which isn’t how Norris typically operates. They do provide a solid foundation to personalize how each learner might go about meeting competency, so they can quickly fill in the gaps during this moment. Given that, it’s one solution we’ve gone with. They aren’t being rolled out to every learner, but for those who were on pathways that were more reliant upon external resources, we needed to have a fallback and build from there. 

In the end, I think building these pathways will actually be better for us in the long run because it will add a new set of pathways for learners who prefer that type of learning when they’re getting their feet wet at Norris.

Q: The distance learning transition is challenging enough, but we’ve also heard Norris has enrolled new learners during this time. What’s that process looked like?

Johnna: It’s surprising, right? But we have actually onboarded three new learners and two new staff people since the governor’s order was announced. The young learners that we enrolled had been in contact with us before the order was made, and they had already determined they would like to enroll.

After the order was made, the neighboring districts who would be helping with transitioning the learner asked us, “Is this still a thing?” We’re like, “Absolutely!” Thanks to the virtual school we also run, we were well-equipped to build their individual learner profiles virtually.

When our new learners were officially enrolled, we started off by connecting with them over the phone and making sure they had everything they needed to connect online. Then, we got them connected with their specialists and coaches and had them join the group conversations with other learners, as well. It really wasn’t any trouble. We just did what we always do. The same way they would connect face-to-face on-campus, they were simply doing it from their living room.

It has been pretty cool actually because of all the fun ways we’ve been connecting everyone as a group. I think they’ve automatically felt like they’re part of the group, and they’ve made connections with other learners, as well as with the staff. We’ve also sent each new learner a little care package to welcome them. They get a Norris T-shirt, a water bottle, some headphones, and some fidget toys. And so, when we had our Norris spirit day, they had a T-shirt to wear.

Q: What new ideas has this moment of distance learning sparked for you?

Johnna: Naturally, when this all started, we were really looking forward to getting back to our regular programming once facilities re-opened. But, having done this for a few weeks now, I’m starting to wonder about things like, “Do we really need a brick and mortar school?”

As much as people automatically think we need a building, these kids are getting just as great of an education (minus the community learning piece) at home. This entire situation has forced us to think outside of the “brick and mortar” box.

What if we saw Norris more as a learning hub? As a staff, we’re having effective virtual team meetings. Does our guy out in Whitewater who drives an hour and a half every day really need to make that commute? In what ways would he be just as effective from the comfort of his home?

It really gets me thinking about what added value the building provides, and whatever that value is, how it can be created without it. When we redesigned Norris’s model in 2016, we actually envisioned our building like a doctor’s office. If you have an appointment with a specialist or coach, you would come in. Otherwise, the rest of your learning could be conducted out in the community or in your living room.

As enrollment in the Academy expanded to those using Open Enrollment (Wisconsin’s public school choice program), we were challenged to maintain this anytime, anywhere vision. Seat time requirements only permit residents of the district the flexibility of “off campus instruction.”

To accomplish this vision of anytime, anywhere learning, our Board of Education approved the addition of Norris Virtual Academy. Enrollment in the Virtual Academy was not meant to become a full on-line learning program, rather a means to provide flexibility to engage in distance, community and face to face learning opportunities within the requirements of state seat time statute.

Q: What has made you most proud during this distance learning experience?

Johnna: The adaptability and flexibility of everyone involved. Everyone—from our staff to our learners to our parents—has been so open-minded about what learning looks like during this moment. It’s made everyone feel like this isn’t all that bad. It’s business as usual. It’s learning.

I sit on Facebook and see everyone talking about how crazy everything is going at home with their kids, parents trying to figure out how they will teach their children and keep them occupied each day. And, for us, things are calm and under control. Our learners are continuing their learning, and our parents can focus on all the other challenges the pandemic has presented.

Everyone has truly owned this process because we all shared a similar mindset toward what learning is. It’s allowed us to adapt and fill in any gaps we find and collaborate with parents on finding the best solutions. This is why it’s gone so smoothly. I’m most proud of the ownership everyone has taken. It’s been wonderful.

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