Navigating the challenges of a pandemic

In one FETC session, a superintendent reflected on getting through the pandemic and looking ahead to how it will impact next school year and beyond.
By: | January 27, 2021
Getty Images: sorbettoGetty Images: sorbetto

Looking back at all the challenges faced since March of last year, one that stands out to Superintendent David Schuler relates to communication. “The guidance was changing so rapidly. By the time you communicated it, there was different guidance coming out. That made it really hard for us to look like we knew what we were doing,” said Schuler in a panel discussion presented by Follett.

His district, Township High School District 214 in Arlington Heights, Illinois, began this school year fully remote and moved to hybrid delivery for the second quarter. It’s a district that has won accolades for its technology efforts, and since the 2017-18 school year all students have been issued an iPad, giving them a personalized learning tool while at school or home.

Schuler said he would give all his teachers a grade of A+, as they have shown their ability to pivot to remote and then hybrid instruction while keeping students engaged. Older kids made a choice whether to go to their next virtual class or not, and teachers found themselves rethinking instruction to ensure students would be excited to be part of lessons, he explained.

One regret he has is deciding early on that students could not use virtual backgrounds in meets. “I was afraid they would be inappropriate, but some students didn’t turn on their camera because they didn’t want to share their room or study space with their peers. I realized I did a huge disservice to students in the spring.”

Dual enrollment during COVID

    One of the other panelists in the Follett-sponsored FETC session was Thomas Chang, senior administrator for curriculum and digital learning for Orange County Public Schools in Orlando, another district with a strong 1:1 program. Chang spoke of the challenges the pandemic created for dual enrollment programs, which have always had a face-to-face modality. School closures forced the district to “rethink the old mechanism,” he said.

    His hope for the future is to see services offered by providers that act as agents between the K12 and higher ed sectors. “We need services that take the pain out of ordering materials for dual enrollment programs,” he said. “All of this is super time-consuming for library media specialists who are already inundated with other duties.”

Being a 1:1 district helped in the transition to pandemic realities, but 1:1 is still “different from running a remote program,” Schuler pointed out.

Some things done to support internet connectivity included turning the internet on in all school parking lots and taking all the district activity buses, which have WiFi on them, and parking them near apartment complexes. District officials also worked with local municipalities to send internet through water towers using boosters. “So wherever a kid has a device, they should have access to the same high-speed internet as in the school building,” he said. Every six to nine weeks, a student survey gets a pulse on technology challenges so the district can address as needed.

One pleasant aspect of COVID has been seeing some students who really thrive in a remote learning setting. On the to-do list is creating a consortium with other districts to form an online academy where students from any of their schools can take an online class. Schuler would also like to see a requirement where every student must take at least one online, asynchronous class before graduation, which will help prepare them for college.

A change he can see with PD is no longer requiring teachers to meet in one spot. “Staff can stay in their own buildings instead of driving an hour each way. You’re going to see a lot more nimbleness,” he said. “And we want education providers to think about how they’re going to provide PD in that way while still making connections with educators. It’s going to be a really fine needle to thread.”

In other words, it’s not about getting back to normal. “I don’t want to go back. I want to move forward,” Schuler said. “This is our time to re-imagine what we want the world to be in our schools.”

Melissa Ezarik is senior managing editor of DA.