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How one district changed the rules to not just survive, but thrive, in “the new normal”

Hard work is helping these schools thrive during COVID-19

How one district changed the rules to help its schools not just survive, but thrive, in “the new normal” brought on by COVID-19

Eileen Belastock has been waiting for this moment, just not under these circumstances. As Director of Academic Technology for Mount Greylock Regional School District, which serves 1,250 students in western Massachusetts, she has all along been advocating for teacher buy-in to the use of tech and the need for every student to have devices and access to the internet.

All it took was a global pandemic for everyone else to agree with her.

Related content: How this district pivoted with the pandemic

In this conversation with eSchool News, Eileen talks about how all these disruptive changes may end up improving the way we teach and learn.

eSN: We always like to get the inside scoop of the glamorous life of tech directors. What’s on the agenda today?

EB: Well, that accounts for the outfit. I’m in the library. All my seniors brought back their Chromebooks, so we’re trying to get an inventory of what we have to distribute. We’re using a lot of alcohol wipes and trying to get stickers off all those lovely things. And over the summer, we’re going to distribute Chromebooks to every student in the district, whether they have a device at home or not.

eSN: So more like a 3:1 or 2:1 strategy?

EB: There are several reasons for this. First, it dedicates a particular device for students. So if there are multiple family members learning online, each student has their own device. It also enables us to support data privacy and we can push out and pull back software. We can troubleshoot hardware. And it just makes a lot more sense if students use our devices on a secure domain.

eSN: What are some other new rules your district has implemented since the onslaught of the pandemic?

EB: Actually, YouTube is a really good example because pre-pandemic, we didn’t have many teachers using it. Once they were learning online, we started rocking and rolling and I had a lot of requests for access, as YouTube was restricted. We went back and forth and finally just opened it up at the middle and high school. So now there are a lot less restrictions—understanding that students were going to be probably accessing YouTube videos they should not be. But we’re hoping that there will be some parental control and our responsible use policy will help.

At the elementary school, we actually relaxed some of their policies too, as they were easier to control because they use Google. If you relax the controls on YouTube and the teacher pushes a video out as an assignment through Google classroom, the teacher is actually approving its use. So no matter what the restrictions are left, it allows them to access content and they don’t have to go through us to white list it. So that was probably the biggest challenge, I think, for the elementary schools to try and figure out how the heck to un-restrict in a way that made sure the students were safe.

eSN: Any other innovations come out of the madness?

EB: One of the big things I like is—and I keep saying it’s a double-edged sword, but—everybody has an online presence. There is something to be said for not having the students in front of a teacher for 45 minutes to an hour listening to a lecture or watching an entire video during a social studies class.

I think it’s allowing teachers to think outside the box and take those risks that they would not do otherwise. If we were completely in the building, they would not be saying, “Okay, I want everybody to go online, and I want you to research. I want you to collaborate. I want you to do a video or a slide deck.” I think the biggest change in that regard has been with our music and our art departments. Because they’re really used to face-to-face and our music teachers and art teachers have had to think how they can work with students in an online environment, when they’re not sitting next to them when they’re drawing charcoal portraits or we’re practicing for an upcoming concert or learning a scale. So, the arts are all working together, where otherwise they would be in isolation in their buildings.

eSN: Any other positive takeaways?

EB: I hate to use the phrase “the new normal,” but I think this is what we always wanted our kids to be going toward. We should not have to do it in this kind of situation but I’ve found that my urgency of getting teachers the skills to teach online is now everybody’s urgency. All of a sudden, we’re talking about connectivity for students who live in rural areas like ours or in difficult socioeconomic situations. Now it’s coming to the forefront. We can’t brush these kids aside. We can’t not have devices in every family’s hands. So, I think the positive is, we’re finally addressing that digital divide and we [tech directors] are at the table now. We’ve always been in the room, but not necessarily at the table.

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