Using Virtual Learning and Online Courses to Support Learning During School Closures at the American School of Nouakchott in Mauritania

Situated on the west coast of Mauritania, the American International School of Nouakchott (AISN) is a small school of around 100 students ranging from pre-K to 12th grade that is situated on the grounds of the US Embassy.

Before the major events of 2020, the school incorporated traditional methods of providing curriculum using textbooks, which were given annually to the students. The school had just started its journey to integrate technology into the classroom and had recently installed high-speed internet for the first time.

The challenge COVID-19 presented

As more countries were affected by the COVID-19 outbreak earlier in the year, AISN, like all schools around the world, was given a set of challenges that were more challenging and unpredictable than any they had experienced before.

Ms. MaryAnn Przekurat, the Director of the school, told us that, “by February we, like the rest of the world, could see that schools were starting to close down. We prepared to move online, but we had no online curriculum whatsoever.

“The country shut down literally overnight. Our first case in the country came in on a Friday. At that time, our high school was out on a three-day field trip. They came back on Sunday, and the government announced that all schools had to close immediately, followed overnight by the airports.”

Although the situation was evolving rapidly, the school had put a learning continuity plan in place: “in a very short period of time, we ended up online. We were able to move online immediately because we knew [COVID-19] was coming. However, this response had a huge impact on our teachers, who were spending most of their time creating new online assignments and delivering Zoom lessons. We got through it, and our teachers were champions.”

MaryAnn found that the teachers were spending up to 80% of their time developing curriculum, while only 20% of their time was spent teaching that curriculum to the students. Something had to change to make this new way of teaching and learning more sustainable, as MaryAnn comments:

“By late April, I felt that it was clear that we would not be having a normal school year from August, and that we needed to be delivering different curriculum and quality education that can transition between being online and in-person easily. At that point, we started looking at different companies, and through AISA, I heard of Edmentum.”

Using courses through Edmentum for flexibility and school closures

When MaryAnn and the school came to Edmentum, they were looking for a company that could support them with their specific needs and had the flexibility to adjust: “Edmentum was willing to work with us and make adjustments and let us change their model to work for us.”

Together with Edmentum, the school embarked on a project to deliver their fully customizable digital curriculum, Courseware and Calvert, to their students. In the background, their teachers were also receiving professional development and being mentored by Edmentum’s own virtual teachers on the best ways to teach virtually. This mentoring program was new for Edmentum, as the teachers from the fully accredited virtual school had previously focused on students only. With a quick turnaround, MaryAnn says that Edmentum and AISN were ready to start:

“The teachers were understandably very nervous about this program. Up until a few months before the pandemic, we were not a technology savvy school. One of the things that Edmentum was able to do for us was to train our teachers. That was a huge benefit from the program. Our teachers spent three weeks with two Edmentum instructors who taught them everything, from the basics of Zoom to then going through the actual curriculum and how to use all the features and adjustments. The teacher’s confidence really built over that time, and so by the time we were ready to open school, the teachers felt they knew what they were doing. They have made huge progress because they had to, and they stepped up to do that.”

To start the new academic year, MaryAnn decided that the school would spend the first four weeks completely online. This was so that they could iron out any issues and ensure that the school could become comfortable enough with their blended model that they could switch from on-site to online teaching as seamlessly as possible. The initial online period was a success, and the students were then able to come on-site, with around 20% choosing to remain online.

“We remained on campus and were in the middle of our seven-year MSA Accreditation when we experienced our first positive case of COVID-19 from a teacher who had been in contact with the whole school population,” explains MaryAnn.

Success with using online learning during COVID-19

This came at a very inconvenient time, but reinforced how successful working with Edmentum had been, as MaryAnn says, “so we had to shut down, reaching out to families at 8:30 pm then by 8 am the next morning, 100% of students were being taught online continuing to use Edmentum’s Courseware and Calvert; it was seamless.

“The MSA was teasing us, saying that they thought we had staged the whole thing to show how well this worked! We were online for eight school days, and then we were able to come back in person.”

One of the biggest changes for the school has been the program’s benefits for staff. Using a virtual environment has brought new roles for teachers that they wouldn’t have imagined before 2020, as MaryAnn says,

“We started using our teaching assistants in a completely different way. Our teaching assistants all speak multiple local languages. They now manage the breakout rooms on Zoom, so we will be able to move a student with a particular native language into a breakout room with an assistant and give them the instruction that their child needs.

“Our teaching assistants have said they have never felt as valuable as they have this year. Before, they were another person in the room, and now, they hold a critical role here at school because of the changes that we’ve had to implement.”

The future of the American International School of Nouakchott and online learning with Edmentum

Moving forward, the school are about to take an extended winter break to allow their families to return home for the first time since the outbreak began in February. They will continue to use Courseware and Calvert for credit recovery while they are away and have also implemented Exact Path, which provides a learning path of content to students automatically based on the gaps in their learning. When they return, they will leave their textbooks aside and commit to the digital curriculum for at least the remainder of this academic year.

Reflecting on the year so far, MaryAnn tells us that her digital curriculum program has not only helped the school stay open but has transformed its outlook.

“If we did not have this program, I do not know what we would have done. There was no way we could continue education the way we were doing it. One of my thoughts at the time was, ‘what if we just close for a year and we’ll reopen back in a year from now?’ That was something we had proposed to the board; I didn’t know what to do.

“So, this really did save us, and it’s moved us so far ahead of all of the schools in town. Our parents say that if we were back in the USA, our kids would be online, but they would not be getting this. They cannot believe they’re in this small country and they’re getting a better experience than if they were in their school back in the US.”