School districts across southeastern Pennsylvania applying lessons from virtual learning | #education | #technology | #training


As educators across the region prepare to end their third straight school year impacted by COVID-19, districts in every environment — suburbs, rural and urban — are looking ahead to lessons learned from the pandemic.

One of the areas seeing lasting change is virtual instruction, since districts have witnessed shifts from in-person, to online, back to in-person instruction, and now seeking what’s coming next.

North Penn School District is a large suburban district in Montgomery County and is currently offering two types of online instruction with key differences between them.

The district Virtual Academy is offered for secondary students in grades seven through 12, with asynchronous education — prerecorded, instead of live streaming from classrooms — provided by district staff.

Kelli Madden, a teacher at Knapp Elementary School in the North Penn School District, speaks to a class full of fifth grade students on Google Meets virtual instruction hardware and streaming video lessons in November 2020. (Courtesy of North Penn School District)

“We have live employees who are their teachers of record. That does not mean that they are live teaching to the kids, but rather the kids are working their way through asynchronous content, and the teacher is available to provide support, answer questions, communicate with parents,” said Assistant Superintendent Todd Bauer.

For elementary students in kindergarten through sixth grade, the program is different: live synchronous instruction is offered, with two sections for each grade, except for second grade which has three sections.

The elementary instruction numbers have dropped by roughly one-third since the start of the 2021-22 school year, and the 15 teachers in that elementary program are at various schools across the district, while the seven Virtual Academy teachers are all based at the district’s Northbridge School.

“While they have their live, in-person students, they are also the teachers of record for the North Penn Virtual Academy students,” Bauer explained.

The 2019-20 school year started in person and shifted to fully online after the arrival of COVID, 2020-21 included a hybrid option with families able to choose whether their students would stay home and stream lessons from classrooms.

That hybrid offering wasn’t available initially for 2021-22, but when community COVID transmission rates spiked in October, families were able to choose the streaming option, until mid-February when those transmission levels fell again.

Future still uncertain

What will virtual instruction look like in 2022-23 and beyond?

Bauer said that will depend in large part on COVID transmission levels.

“Things seem to be progressing toward what was normal, and we’re hopeful that the streaming will no longer be necessary in the fall, but I do expect that we will have some version of our virtual academy, that is somewhere in between what it was in 2019-20 and what it currently is in ’21-’22,” he said.

“I think that some of our students and families have learned that the online instructional model works best for them,” he added.

Staff have heard of students choosing to stay online due to health issues, anxiety about returning to in-person, or a desire to stay home and have more flexibility. As for teachers, for the most part their feelings are clear.

“One thing we know, loud and clear, is that teachers do not like the hybrid version,” Bauer said.

“Most of our teachers are agreeable to teaching one way or the other, virtual or in-person, but I think everyone prefers in-person. That’s why we get into education: the relationships. Doing it online, while we’re doing a great job of it, I think the preference is to have kids in the classroom,” he said.

At North Penn, typical of large suburban districts, the total number of students in both forms of online instruction is less than 5% of total enrollment.

“These combined numbers are under 500 across the whole district, with about 12,500 who are in person,” Bauer said.

What about hardware?

The level of investment in technology will be a big part in determining the future of education delivery.

At North Penn, that investment was dramatic: In the summer of 2020 the North Penn School Board authorized purchases of new monitors and stands to allow for the live streaming from classrooms to students watching from home, and Bauer said all of that equipment is still in place, and in regular use.

“All of those components are still in classrooms, and still being used on a fairly regular basis, and not just for that purpose. Teachers can plug into it, and use it as another presentation station, or kids can use it to give their presentations,” he said.

“We used to just have a projector in the classroom, but now we have a projector and a monitor. In the event that a student is streaming from home because they have COVID, or they’ve been quarantining, the teacher can turn it on and interact with students that way.”

And how does the district’s online education compare to that provided by private online cyberschools?

One difference is the price tag: district staff have calculated that costs are roughly $5,000 to the district to educate a student online, while cyberschool tuitions tend to be around $15,000.

“For what they charge $15,000 for, we believe we’re able to do for more like $5,000. And keep in mind, we have a physical facility that we need to maintain, and we have teachers in our buildings for the virtual academy,” Bauer said.

“I am very confident that, if we compared our state testing scores, to those that do not attend our schools, I would expect that ours are higher,” he said.

Students are also able to go back and forth between online and in-person more easily if enrolled in North Penn’s virtual programs, and the lessons learned from the past three years of online instruction may also play into a conversation that’s just restarting now: whether the district should add a ninth-grade center at North Penn High School to move students there from the three middle schools.

“We’ve been touring some high schools, to get some ideas for our high school renovation project, and that is absolutely a topic of conversation,” he said.

“We have to think about the next 30, 40, 50 years, and what education could look like, and I think the last two years have taught us a lot about the fluidity of students being in the buildings versus not, and programmatically what are the impacts of that. How will it impact that project, I can’t say, but it is absolutely a topic of conversation as we prepare for that significant renovation.”

Rural districts

With the numbers for COVID-19 down, the rural southern Chester County Kennett Consolidated School District is embracing technology like never before.

“If it is possible, technology has become an even more indispensable part of our everyday life,” Superintendent Dusty Blakey said. “It is our responsibility to continue to equip every one of our 4,000-plus children with critical digital literacy skills and 21st-century college and career prospects.”

The technology department staffers now support district-issued devices for every student.

“Not only have the laptops and software made remote and hybrid instruction possible,” said KCSD Technology Director Dan Maguire, “they also continue to create an empowering learning environment for all of our students.”

Adequate funding is key. The district’s individualized device program will ultimately be sustained within the general operating budget.

This year, the district has also begun a partnership with the Chester County Intermediate Unit, among others. The initiative aims to establish equitable access for all residents who wish to learn, work and play at home using high-speed broadband.

At the same time, new Kennett High School degree programs like business administration, coding and media communications help digital natives further develop marketable skills.

“Technology is continually changing the landscape of our working world,” high school Principal Jeremy Hritz said. “KHS degree programs are intentionally developed to teach today’s most innovative tech and to help students envision themselves at the center of tomorrow’s industries.”

In addition to traditional classroom instruction, students enrolled in one of these specialized pathways will complete job shadowing, internship and research experiences.

“This is just the beginning of our plan to transform K-12 education,” Hritz said. “We want to nurture the next generation of future entrepreneurs, where college programs and careers will be driven by artificial intelligence and automation.”

District staffers say that thanks to warehouse LinkIt, Kennett’s educators also have more information than ever at their fingertips. The new-to-the-district data warehouse allows all to see real-time insights on their students’ achievement from a single location.

“In our professional development this year, we’ve focused on training our teachers to analyze information and implement personalized interventions,” Maguire said. “Our goal at the end of the day is to always maximize every student’s growth.”

Urban challenges

The more urban Reading School District initiated one-to-one technology at the start of the state-ordered shutdown in spring 2020 and distributed 16,500 Chromebooks, prioritizing high school students first, followed by middle school students and then elementary students.

Currently, all Reading School District students have a school-issued Chromebook to use at school and at home, that district said in a statement to MediaNews Group.

Reading School District was on full virtual learning from March 2020 through April 2021, when the district began a hybrid learning schedule for the remainder of the 2020-21 school year.

The district reopened full in-person learning in August for the 2021-22 school year. Out of the district’s approximately 18,000 students, 1,560 are enrolled as of late March in the online learning program.

In the past two years, district leaders have focused on providing families with equitable access to technology and addressing the digital divide in Reading, according to that district.

They have developed several partnerships, including working with T-Mobile to distribute hundreds of free mobile hot spots to students and working with Comcast to launch community LiftZones where students could complete school work and receive tutoring assistance.

The district has also covered the cost of home internet for nearly 500 families in need through the Comcast Internet Essentials Program. In addition, the district’s IT team expanded the exterior Wi-Fi footprint at 14 of its school buildings, allowing students even more opportunities to access the Internet in their neighborhoods.

Since returning to full in-person learning, teachers have continued to incorporate technology components, including microphone headsets, online learning centers and educational computer programs to reinforce concepts taught that day.

In addition, use of the Google Education Suite has increased significantly.

For example, most of the high school teachers developed Google Classrooms to communicate more efficiently with students and track assignments, and many clubs still use Google Meet to host their weekly meetings, the district said.

Students at all grade levels are using technology to collaborate and are enjoying exploring Google Forms, Google Docs, Google Sheets and Google Sites to complete projects, the district said.

Berks superintendent sees benefits

And the shift from in-person to virtual and back again has left lasting impacts in Berks County, as Dr. Greg M. Miller, Fleetwood School District superintendent noted in a column for MediaNews Group.

“Probably the largest area of growth for all school systems during this time was in the area of technology use. For us in the Fleetwood School District, the professional learning of teachers, specifically on their usage of technology, was enormous. The creative thinking that took place to find ways to interact with students during the closure, as well as how to use technology on a daily basis as schools reopened, was astounding,” Miller wrote.

“Like many districts, Fleetwood was in the midst of a slow shift to a more digital method of delivering instruction. We were balancing the use of books and paper with the use of computer devices and digital content. When all schools in Pennsylvania were forced to move to a fully virtual learning environment back in 2020, the shift occurred immediately for everyone. While I do not want anyone to think that I advocate for students being in front of a screen full time, there are some benefits of students having access to digital content. Our district went from being roughly 40 percent of our students having district-issued computers to fully one to one practically overnight. The amount of teacher learning and change to be able to function in such an environment was tremendous. The benefit I see now is students and teachers who are able to interact virtually when necessary,” Miller wrote.

One key benefit that no one could have anticipated before?

Miller wrote that he’s seen high school students now taking college courses online during study halls, while still in high school, while others who might have missed out on classroom interactions due to medical needs can now stay in touch with their classmates while recovering, interactions that may be helpful to their recovery.

“The use of videoconferencing tools has made it so much easier to collaborate, whether it is staff members across buildings, the state, or even further. It has allowed parents to no longer need to miss work to come to a parent conference. They can simply Zoom into a meeting with teachers during their lunch break. Finally, we have seen opportunities for students who are able to take the idea of pen pals to a whole new level, meeting virtually with students from other countries,” Miller wrote.

“While we all certainly recognize the challenges brought on by COVID-19 as well as the devastating loss of life that has occurred, we can also recognize that like many challenges in the past, COVID-19 has given our schools and communities a significant opportunity to rise to the challenge, learn important lessons and improve our current systems for generations to come,” Miller wrote.



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