South Orangetown Central School District

Over the past three months, our District’s instructional technology team has played an integral role in planning, implementing and supporting the pivot to distance learning in response to the COVID-19 related school closure.

In fact, the foundation for remote learning had been built long before this spring. “For the past seven years, we’ve been in a continuous cycle of professional development to equip our students and teachers with digital tools to enhance learning. Leveraging those familiar tools helped us make the transition to digital learning,” reports K-12 Instructional Technology Coach Marc Eckert.

In collaboration with Director of Technology George Brady and Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction Brian Culot, Ed.D., Eckert has worked closely with Technology Education/maker space teachers Randi Nerkizian (WOS), Kimberly Guzas (CLE), Jacob Tanenbaum (CLE), Andrew McIntosh (SOMS), Kimberlee Landgraff (SOMS) and Karen Connell (TZHS) to advance support tech-infused classrooms and advance district STEM programs. “We’re in constant conversation about how to consistently improve and address the needs of students and teachers with regard to hardware, software and professional development. We work hard to leverage tools that both meet our instructional technology needs and protect student data privacy,” Eckert explains.

Over the years, SOCSD has made substantial investments in educational technology. The District introduced mobile laptop carts 12 years ago and began its first one-to-one tech initiative nearly eight years ago at SOMS. As the mobile initiative expanded, the District implemented a one-to-one, student-to-Chromebook model at TZHS and installed classroom racks of Chromebooks for grades K-8. “We were well-positioned from an infrastructure perspective, given that mobile learning has been a primary District initiative for the past decade. Support from our Board of Education and our community really facilitated the adoption of mobile technology across the district,” says Brady.

Then, the pandemic struck.

“As it became clear in early March that we would likely be out of school for an extended period, I worked individually with every K-6 teacher to establish Google Classrooms for each homeroom to facilitate centralized content sharing across grade levels,” Eckert explains. “The goal was to ensure the consistent, equitable delivery of high-quality lessons and activities to meet the diverse needs of our student body. We’ve learned a lot and are proud of the work that has been done by both teachers and students.”

Professional development for teachers began on March 16 and has been based on both teacher needs and advancing how students are engaged virtually. The team developed a distance learning portal through which 10-15 group professional development sessions have been offered each week, in addition to individual support via Zoom, email and text message.

“My role isn’t only tech support; I’m also a cheerleader, encouraging people to stick with all of the ‘new’ that they’re encountering,” says Nerkizian. “It has been very rewarding to see how much and how quickly my colleagues have learned and grown! I make it a top priority to join classes each day during live lessons to get a feel for their experiences and challenges, to offer an extra set of hands and eyes and to interact with our students.”

At the building level, technology teachers hosted weekly drop-in sessions and developed resources to support teachers in changing the way that they deliver instruction. Feedback from teachers, students and families enabled them to assess progress and inform thinking about ways to differentiate remote instruction to meet diverse needs. At SOMS, McIntosh and Landgraff created a Google Classroom with resources just for teachers. “Teachers can access our Google Classroom to complete an assignment as a student to understand how it may be perceived from a student point of view,” McIntosh reports.

Zoom sessions also helped teachers network with their colleagues. “We found this to be a collaborative forum for people to problem solve, share ideas and learn something new,” notes Guzas.

And, the team provided direct assistance to families who needed help getting students online. “I ended up doing quite a bit of tech support in Spanish and even learned a few new words that had never come up in the 30 years that I have been speaking the language!” Tanenbaum says.

Despite the challenges, the team reports that teachers have risen to the challenge of distance learning. “As a technology teacher, it was a big challenge leaving my planned curriculum behind in entirety,” acknowledges Nerkizian. “Many of the units that I had planned were contingent on the resources and tools in the maker space, which the vast majority of students don’t have access to at home, such as robots, laser cutters and paper circuitry. It’s also a slightly different experience trying to navigate distance learning in a K-2 school. Balancing foundational skills such as learning to read, write, or learn math strategies and skills along with the tech skills required to access and express their learning has been a challenge. Without question, though, the success has been seeing just how much my colleagues have learned and how much more open they are to trying new things.”

“Teachers are eager to continue to provide meaningful learning experiences for their students and they’re open to learning and using the technology that is available to them to make that happen,” Connell states. “One of the highlights that has been evident throughout this distance learning journey has been the increased enhancement of the supportive culture among staff in our high school and throughout the entire district. We’ve all adopted a ‘we are in this together’ attitude and are working hard to do the best we can.”

Among the team, there is consensus that this experience will have a long-term impact on teachers’ professional practice. Optimizing the digital content they created may spur teachers to innovate and experiment further, perhaps by exploring flipped learning models. “Personally, I’ll have a Google Classroom set up for my Technology classes and for math support students in September so students are familiar with where to go for lessons and assignments,” says Guzas. “Also, we’ll teach students how to use different tools in Technology class so they’ll be prepared should we need to extend or return to distance learning in the future. The vast library of video lessons I have now created will be a wonderful resource for next year which I will use to teach, reteach or share with substitute teachers.”

Distance learning has also helped to strengthen the home-school connection. “Teachers are seeing the ways that technology can help meet students and parents where they are,” Nerkizian notes. “I think more teachers will incorporate recorded lessons as a reference and reteaching or extension tool to drive independent learning. I also think it will increase and expand accessibility for parents and parent/teacher communication. I’ve had a few colleagues mention that they’ve never felt such a close relationship with the parents or had a better understanding of who their students are beyond the walls of the school. Who knows, maybe this experience also shows us that snow days, as we know them, are out and remote learning days are in!”

In terms of establishing a strong home/school tech connection, Brady’s team distributed more than 300 devices to students–some without any technology at home and many others whose families discovered that access to shared technology at home was insufficient to meet the needs of multiple household members simultaneously engaged in working and learning remotely. “In anticipation of the potential need to extend distance learning, our technology team is repurposing existing devices and procuring new ones so that we’ll be able to provide all our students with mobile technology,” says Brady. “Based on the number of mobile devices in our K-8 classrooms, we are capable of providing a mobile device to each student. Reconfiguring existing and configuring new devices for over 2,000 students is an enormous project. Once the devices are configured, we’ll work with our building administrators to deploy them.”

The instructional technology team is hopeful about how the teachers and the District will be able to leverage this experience to elevate, engage and inspire students in new and exciting ways.. “If we decided to implement distance learning under normal circumstances, it would have taken about two years to roll it out. We would have studied the different platforms, heard from vendors and tested each system. We would have trained students and staff and had trial runs in the classroom. There would have been workshops, surveys and a great deal of discussion,” Tanenbaum reflects. “There are teachers all over this district and this country who, over the past three months, have proven to themselves that they have the ability to very effectively use technology in ways they had never dreamed possible. I can’t wait to see where that leads them.”

instructional tech team