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The hidden benefits of a move to online instruction

In a virtual classroom driven by COVID-19, educators are discovering new and innovative ways to teach--here's how one district found some silver linings in its move online

That COVID “where were you when” moment from last March is still fresh in Paul Sanfrancesco’s mind. Watching neighboring districts announce closures and realizing his own faculty would be stranded at home, contingency plans were hatched and devices were launched to prep students for remote learning.

Some of the district’s best strategies to ease the transition, along with hidden benefits, include:

  • Online recess helped kids socialize and become more comfortable in their new virtual environments
  • A device and an internet connection made their way into every student’s home
  • District leaders realized that, even post-COVID, learning won’t be the same–it will have to evolve and innovate

While no one could have been completely prepared for what has since developed, schools in the Owen J. Roberts School District (OJRSD) were already using several learning management tools that eased the transition. They also continue to learn new techniques and strategies as all schools everywhere move into the unknown.

Sanfrancesco is Director of Technology for OJRSD. The district, located in northern Chester County, Pennsylvania, comprises five elementary schools, one middle school, and the Owen J. Roberts High School. The student population for the entire district is around 4,800 students. Sanfrancesco teaches as a professor in the Graduate Education Department at Saint Joseph’s University, Philadelphia, PA and Neumann University, Aston, PA. He was named CTO of the Year by the Pennsylvania Association for Educational Communications and Technology and one of the “20 to Watch” educators by the National School Boards Association for his work in IT.

In this conversation with eSchool News, Sanfrancesco touches on a number of new realities: the raw need for devices access for every student; creating better relationships with parents; getting younger students Zoom ready; and more. Below are some highlights:


eSchool News: While there are thousands of horror stories out there about how districts basically failed in transitioning students to a remote setup, your district sounds like things went relatively well. How come?

PS: Our teachers were prepared to handle this kind of learning environment because we already had implemented learning management systems at all levels. In the elementary schools, we have Seesaw. We have Google Classroom and Canvas at the middle and high school. Everybody was already trained. We had actually mandated that all teachers, guidance counselors, nurses, whoever, do at least one of their LMSs in their school. So in that regard, compared to other districts who had to scramble and close for a week so they could do PD, we were good.

eSchool News: Not that this has been easy though, right?

PS: Our teachers are so ingrained in a brick and mortar environment, an online environment for an extended period of time like this requires more professional development. It’s just a different shift. You can’t do exactly what you’ve done in your classroom before.There now has to be that blend of online instruction, with those modules that come in those Zoom office hours, and with those emails. It’s just a different environment that some teachers really adapted to and other teachers are just still struggling.

eSchool News: It seems this transition has been particularly hard on lower grades, especially when it comes to aspects of Social Emotional Learning (SEL). How have you handled this?

PS: One thing we did is establish online recess time, just because the kids want to get together and see each other as a class and they can just socialize. A lot of these kids have been isolated in their houses with no communication with their teachers, their neighbors, with anyone depending on where you live. So when they get online, let them have recess first! Let everybody bring a snack with a snack buddy. Once you get that out of the way, then kids are able to focus more.

eSchool News: Talk about any silver linings that you discovered in this process, where you have said, “Oh, you know what, okay, we could have been doing this all along.”

PS: Getting devices and internet connection into the hands of every student. It was huge. When we put out a call to see who needed devices, we ended up giving out over 800 Chromebooks. Some of the reasons were, “I only have two devices at home,” or “I only have an iPad and a phone that works. Now I need a device to use for instruction,” or “I have five kids.”

It was huge in regards to really getting people connected. We have some students in low income housing. Some are in trailer parks that don’t have internet at all. Before they were using the free wifi at school or going to the library, which isn’t an option now. So we worked with Comcast and other vendors in our area to open up hotspots and we gave hotspots to families. We also begged neighbors to give passwords out to their wifi. Those were the kinds of things we didn’t realize that, well, you just go out and do it.

eSchool News: So the million dollar question: What happens next?

PS: We can’t go backwards. This has proven the role that technology plays in a lot of things. I don’t care what district you’re in, you didn’t have a hundred percent participation with people using technology to this degree before. And now we do. So when we go back to the brick and mortar and we say, “Okay, we’re just going to go back to this instruction of just lecture and maybe using technology here and there?” It’s not going to happen. I think they’re going to blend in the future and we’re going to see a lot of more innovative, creative ideas come out of instruction.






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