Be Prepared—It’s a Cliche for a Reason.

eSchool News
Be Prepared—It’s a Cliche for a Reason.
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According to Tony Spence, for a district to be ready for everything, it has to constantly be preparing for something. And maybe be a little bit lucky. In this conversation with eSchool News, Tony details his district’s recent major AV implementation and how it dovetailed with his district’s decision to remain in-person during the COVID crisis.

ESN:
When we look back at last spring and, it was almost as if a lot of districts were in triage—just making basic connections, getting folks together, and things like state testing were out the window. Are there things from your experience that you think that your district will draw out of that and apply going forward?

TS:
Yeah, for sure although I think we’re yet to determine where we’re going to land from this in terms of best practice and opportunity of efficiency and other things—how we care for our people, how you respond in a crisis. I’m proud about how we were able to respond to all of our stakeholders, including our staff of all types, as well as our students and our families.

We can’t say we’ll get back to you in a couple of days. We had decisions being made in a matter of minutes. And that’s where we really benefited from having continuity and contingency planning already in place for things like this, having resources already in place for something like this, having staff being trained for things like this. We didn’t train them for a pandemic, mind you, but we do train them to be versatile, to be mobile. And that certainly has paid off.

ESN:
Even as a district that has been in-person throughout the pandemic, it can’t be the same technology set up that you had going back to school the year before right? Talk a little bit about how you’ve had to adjust and pivot in terms of projection systems or other classroom tech setups.

TS:
Well, sometimes you get lucky, and I’d like to say that there’s luck and leading, and maybe it’s a little bit of both. But in this case, we had done a rollout of new AV setups in all of our classrooms. And we have 85% of the classrooms fully completed. We put in Epson projection systems and they were great for us— the hundred-inch screens. They’re very bright. We have a lot of brand new buildings with bright windows and it’s not like we have any issues seeing these things. So we have the largest screen, the brightest screen, the most versatile, and that set the stage for what was going to be in-person instruction. But then it also set the stage for virtual because running all of our technologies through that meant that we could actually have what I consider it to be a very versatile setup.

ESN: Sounds great:

TS:
Now, is anything easy? Of course not. We also added 4k document cameras into the classroom. And that allowed us to project what was happening in the classroom to those that were remote. Because oftentimes we have teachers who are teaching both to a virtual audience and an in-person audience at the same time, particularly at our high schools.

Obviously, this is a very difficult task. So our goal was to make sure that we had high-speed internet. We upgraded the 10 gig. We installed an entire fiber infrastructure, within our district three years ago, and then connected to a much larger horseshoe around the entire Metro area of Milwaukee. And so we drove that work so that we can have that connection at faster speeds. So now we have 10 gig, we have fast wifi into the schools.

And then we have other software utilities that allow us to use Google Meets to provide kind of a unified option for instruction. Now, Google meet is nothing cutting edge, but it’s worked really well for us. And that was a nice transition for staff to be able to go and not use a brand new tool that they were comfortable with because that’s what we defaulted to in the spring. And then we paid for the enterprise version of that going forward. So we did add new technologies. We definitely added more systems into our district for that arsenal that, uh, we’ll call it our, our toolbox of technologies, but overall it wasn’t a huge learning curve for most of the technologies that we had.

IT Innovators in Education Need Rest, Too

eSchool News
IT Innovators in Education Need Rest, Too
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Virtual or hybrid education has been a blessing during the COVID-19 pandemic. When it’s a risk to gather and parents may not feel comfortable sending their children to a classroom, technology has allowed classrooms to take place virtually.

Making sure teachers can teach and students can learn and that they have the devices and network connectivity they need is an enormous challenge, especially in a district like Highline Public Schools in Washington state.

Mark Finstrom, Chief Technology Officer, said he and his staff were able to get things up and running and keep things going as smoothly as possible with a help desk active from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. and other efforts to make sure faculty and students at the district, which includes English-Spanish bilingual campuses and even is working on English-Vietnamese education, had what they needed.

Finstrom was proud of his team’s work, but started noticing the importance of something else – rest.

“That entire team was trying to give 20,000-25,000 people a seamless start to the school year, and it worked. But we burned out,” Finstrom said.

As Finstrom remembered to balance his managerial skills with his technological ones, he began to start meetings with check-ins with his team not about devices or technical issues but instead about how their personal lives are going before getting to the work portion of the meeting.

“I was trying to make the experience for the families and students and the teachers best I could. Who’d I forget? Myself and my team,” he said. “I’m now rebuilding, basically, some relationships with my own team. They suffered, because I fell into that funk and forgot about them. Some of them have even expressed that I didn’t care if they worked tireless endless hours to make sure kids were in school. That wasn’t the intent, but that’s how it came across.”

His team faces another challenge next month when students likely will begin returning to classroomsand bringing new devices with them. Yet, Finstrom is confident he and his team once again will rise to the occasion, while keeping their own mental health as a high priority.

How to Lead in This Time of Crisis

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How to Lead in This Time of Crisis
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Henry (Hank) Thiele, Superintendent for Community High School District 99 in Thorndale (IL) can’t stop looking forward. Despite the current, daily chaos of re-opening and lockdowns, hybrid and remote learning, and other disruptive undercurrents affecting schools, he believes that being prepared for what’s next is as important as dealing with the problems of right now. In this conversation with eSchool News, Hank offers his insights for education professionals that will have to deal with fractured communities in the future even after they are “back to normal.”

Charting an Educational Course for Success in Choppy Pandemic Waters.

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Charting an Educational Course for Success in Choppy Pandemic Waters.
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Marianthe Williams, School Administrator and Director of Technology for the River Dell Regional School District in Oradell, New Jersey, took a journey back in time to March of 2020 to help break down her district’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Call it good fortune, or maybe just innovative planning, but the River Dell School District already created the environment and infrastructure to provide remote learning for students and teachers. So, when the pandemic hit, it was ahead of the curve. On March 11, it knew school closures were imminent, and Williams said the staff used a PD day to plan for online learning.

“We’re a Microsoft school,” Williams said. “So, we had all the 365 tools, years of PD with the HP device, and this was the game changer; everyone had a digital pen.”

With all of the digital tools in place, something the district was slowly rolling out, Microsoft Teams, kicked into high gear once things moved to remote learning.

Fast forward to the fall of 2020, and a new challenge emerged. Williams explained there was a combination of kids learning from home and kids learning in person. “Even though there’s a camera on your laptop, now there’s a barrier,” Williams said. “And everyone is six feet apart, and it’s much harder. You can’t just turn your laptop around.”

It was essential to make sure every student had a webcam to communicate with every student, whether in class or online.

One of the benefits of online learning Williams found is having one-on-one interactions between teachers and students. The situation was more manageable when everyone was doing online learning in the spring. This fall proved more challenging when teachers met new students with masks on their faces. “Even though you’re there, and there is a bond, there is a barrier too,” Williams said.

With her district’s ‘we got this’ mentality, Williams believes there are no obstacles it cannot overcome.

The eLearning Lessons We Can Take into Post-Pandemic Life

eSchool News
The eLearning Lessons We Can Take into Post-Pandemic Life
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  • Most teachers and students now have figured out how to utilize the technology that suddenly become required in March.
  • Student evaluation remains a challenge, especially with some state standards lagging behind technology growth.
  • Resources utilized during the pandemic still can be important tools going forward.

In March, most school districts were sent scrambling when the start coronavirus pandemic made it clear it was not wise to conduct school on campus – at least not in the traditional way.

Some students are back in the physical building, while others are learning entirely remotely. But, with nine months of time to develop strategies and best practices, not only are districts now starting to get a clearer picture of how to best educate students, but teachers are, as well.

Randy Rodgers, Judson ISD’s Director of Instructional Technology, said one teacher he works with struggled to get the hang of the learning management system but is now a campus leader. It’s hardly the only collaborative moment he’s seen among faculty members during the pandemic.

“One of the things that has been really exciting is that, when I’m not sure of an answer, one of the teachers will chime in and say, ‘Oh, I already figured that out!’” Rodgers said. “I think their skill level is going to be dramatically [increased]. They’re not going to be out there writing code, necessarily, but, as far as just the basics and how to integrate technology into their instruction, I think that’s definitely going to be a plus.”

That will require districts to remain committed to a different way of learning, even when it’s safe for classrooms to be full and everyone to be learning face-to-face once again. Rodgers said he hopes the gains made through hard work this year won’t be thrown away.

“We’ve got to maintain that presence. We’ve got to get better at integrating it seamlessly into our face-to-face instruction,” Rodgers said. “We’ve got that opportunity now.”

With more time to plan what to do post-pandemic than what to do at the start of it, Rodgers said districts should start thinking about how the technology they’ve invested in and trained their students and teachers on can continue to help improve the learning process for years to come.

How automation keeps student bullies in check—both in-person and remote.

eSchool News
How automation keeps student bullies in check—both in-person and remote.
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Even a pandemic won’t stop bad student behavior and in many cases inflames it. In this conversation with eSchool News, Laura Lockhart, director of student services of Keller Independent School District in Texas talks about how the district digitally updated their bullying reporting process to keep students safe and meet federal reporting regulations.

STEM in the time of COVID—How one district keeps innovating in “The Weirds.”

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STEM in the time of COVID—How one district keeps innovating in “The Weirds.”
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Like every educator, Frank Pileiro has had to pivot. As Supervisor of Technology at Linwood Board of Education in South Jersey, he has the added pressure of overseeing their robust maker space programs while managing the current hybrid teaching setup. In this conversation with eSchool News, Frank explains how to keep engaging students, even if it’s from a distance.

Looking For The Little Wins

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Looking For The Little Wins
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Everyone has a crazy COVID story. For Brigantine, NJ Superintendent Glenn Robbins, it goes something like this—lead a school district through a global pandemic having hardly met the students, parents, or faculty. In this conversation with eSchool News, Glenn details the never-ending variables of getting back to school in 2020 and how the priority should be well-being first. In some cases, technology can help not hinder.

Game On—How one district is using gaming to build community and serve student well being.

eSchool News
Game On—How one district is using gaming to build community and serve student well being.
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James O’Hagan is not playing around. As Director of Digital and Virtual Learning for the Racine Unified School District in Wisconsin, his job entails not just managing the virtual learning program in response to the pandemic, but also supporting library services, as well as developing his passion project of Esports. In this conversation with eSchool News, James talks about the essential role Esports can play when it comes to student health, mental wellness, social-emotional learning, as well as connecting to collegiate and career pathways.

Time to Get Real—How one rural district is dealing with both connectivity and equality for fall.

eSchool News
Time to Get Real—How one rural district is dealing with both connectivity and equality for fall.
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For Todd Dugan, Superintendent of Bunker Hill CUSD #8, a small, remote district in Southern Illinois, issues surrounding back-to-school COVID-19 style are not abstract but all too real. In this conversation with eSchool News, Todd tries to keep the glass half full as he looks to take advantage of these incredible disruptions to education.