The coronavirus outbreak has halted regular school days for the foreseeable future, pushing instruction to online learning environments as administrators work to ensure teachers and students have the devices and connectivity needed for continuity of learning.

In the Sewanhaka Central High School District, located on Long Island just outside of New York City, educators moved as quickly as they could to ensure as little interruption to learning as possible.

The district, which is home to five junior and senior high schools consisting of grades 7-12, was able to develop its online learning plan fairly quickly, thanks in part to an existing one-to-one take-home iPad program, which already had students using devices for classroom instruction.

“All students have had iPads for 2-4 years, and teachers have had them for 5 years,” says Brian Messinger, the district coordinator for Classroom Instructional Technology & Student Achievement. “All the systems and tools were there. Our district has invested heavily in professional learning and instructional for the last few years.”

Transitioning to remote environments, from a technical aspect, was relatively easy, and even educators who were reluctant to use technology in their physical classrooms have embraced it now, Messinger says.

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“Even if [teachers] were reluctant to use it, they already had the skills,” he says. “People are stepping up and trying new things. It’s messy every day and it’s not a substitute for direct learning, [but] we’re figuring it out, going slowly, and working with what’s comfortable for students.”

But there’s little room for reluctance in a global pandemic.

“When your entire job is trying to motivate people to use technology to transform teaching and learning, there’s always resistance,” Massinger says. “Right now, there’s no resistance. We’re doing this because it’s the best option now for continuity of learning.”

The district’s technology rollout also facilitates important social and academic connections for its students, Messinger notes.

“We’re trying our best to make sure we’re keeping track of the students who aren’t connecting and who aren’t joining their classes,” he says. “It’s not a ‘gotcha’–we want to check in and see if they’re doing OK.”

Reaching special-needs students in virtual environments

Supporting special-needs students has been a topic of intense focus as schools across the country shut down face-to-face operations, mostly because those students require in-person interventions and therapies that don’t always easily translate to virtual environments.

School counselors and clinicians in the district hold regular office hours, connect with students in small groups on Google Meets, and also reach out to students individually via phone or individual meets, Messinger says.

“We’re continuing to work on those connections. In terms of our special education population, we have about 400 apps in our catalog and we’ve added quite a number of special education apps as additional supports for those students,” he says.

Some special education students don’t bring their school-issued iPads home because the devices do not suit their individual learning styles. Those students work on paper packets, Messinger says, and teachers regularly engage with parents to facilitate learning. ELL teachers work with students and parents regularly.

“It’s certainly not perfect,” Messinger says, “and our ELL and special education populations are particularly challenging with remote learning, but we’re doing everything we can.”

The district had a hypothetical closure plan in place, and as the virus spread, district officials began talking with stakeholders to firm up how learning would continue if schools physically closed. Part of those advance plans included a day of professional learning to help teachers get used to teaching online.

“We basically got this rolling with 48 hours of notice,” Messinger says. “Just like the start of a school year, each day is a little bit calmer, and now students and teachers are in a routine. This is an opportunity for us to take online instruction up a notch, but it’s also a challenge–home lives are uprooted and we want to support our teachers, not add extra burdens.”

The district makes as many resources as possible available for teachers, including online resources, Apple Professional Learning, and helpful links.

The shift to online learning is also prompting teachers to be a bit more creative. Many music students left their instruments at school and didn’t anticipate long closures. The district’s music teachers held a workshop and dove into Apple’s GarageBand app to give students another way to continue music education without their instruments.

“We’re trying to slowly provide teachers with opportunities to enhance their remote learning craft,” Messinger says.

An attempt at normalcy

“The reason we’re doing as well as we are–and this is by no means a victory lap; it’s messy and we have work to do while we try to make the best of a bad situation–is that we’re trying to make sure teachers are supported with what they’re already comfortable with, and we’re trying to make sure students are using the tools they’re already comfortable with,” Messinger says.

Sticking to what’s normal for students is key to helping them transition and become comfortable with online learning.

“Now’s not the time to reinvent the wheel. We’re in a good spot because we were already a one-to-one district, and we’re just trying to provide normalcy. The best way to support students is normalcy and familiarity,” Messinger adds.

Home accessibility, connectivity concerns

Students’ access to home wi-fi, whether it be any access at all or reliable access, is an issue across the country.

How this district moved online with a moment's notice

“Thankfully, it’s a relatively small issue in our area. Before we launched our iPad program, we surveyed students–even then, well over 96 percent had no trouble with home connectivity,” Messinger says.

The district heard from just 12 students who said they struggled with wi-fi at home. To remedy those struggles, the district worked with a local internet service provider that allows students in need to connect to public wi-fi for free.

“It’s not ideal if a student lives too far away from that public hotspot,” says Messinger. “Obviously, we want it for 100 percent of our students 100 percent of the time, so we’re always looking for better solutions.”

Looking ahead

This taste of student-centered learning could help move instruction away from lectures and more into individual student exploration in classrooms across the country.

“The one thing we’re always thinking about is that when the dust settles and when we return to life ‘as normal,’ how will this all translate to the future?” Messinger says.

“In some ways, this might make both our teachers and our learners better at what they do. There’s a sense of resiliency and a sense of independent learning, which we’re always preaching and advocating for in the classroom,” he adds.

Many state education leaders are beginning to think about what the fall may look like for students, though most of those discussions are hypothetical.

“For the fall, we’ve been talking about it, but right now we’re trying to focus on what the rest of the year looks like,” Messinger says. New York State has canceled its Regents exams, the state’s high-stakes test.

“We’re focused on this year but we’re very much already talking about next year. When we come back in September, what will teachin gand learning look like, particularly in math and science? What are some of the skills we need to make sure are reinforced? In September we can’t just pick up the ball and keep running; we have to make sure we build up the skills we covered remotely and make sure everyone has a strong foundation and is on the same page when we return.”

Must of the work schools will likely do with students will go past academics.

“If this goes for the rest of the year, we want to make sure students come back in the fall ready to go, academically, and we want to address the social-emotional impact,” Messinger says. “Our communities are getting hit pretty hard by this. We’re going ot have a lot of work to do when we get back, across the board, for all of our students.”

Laura Ascione
About the Author:

Laura Ascione

Laura Ascione is the Managing Editor, Content Services at eSchool Media. She is a graduate of the University of Maryland's prestigious Philip Merrill College of Journalism. Find Laura on Twitter: @eSN_Laura


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