children in masks at school

In the Spring of 2020, only a few weeks after schools closed for the pandemic, I got the exciting call offering me the Director of Educational Technology at Friends Select School in Philadelphia. At the time, we all figured the pandemic would peak by July and school closures seemed temporary and short-lived. Slowly, though, school closures kept being extended and deaths began to rise across the country. 

As my first day at my new school approached in June, I began gathering as much information as I could about hybrid teaching and remote learning to best equip my new faculty with the tools they needed to engage their students no matter where they were. Even though our school had a strong reopening plan, all reopening plans were at the whim of an unpredictable virus and state and county-level decisions. I decided to prep my teachers for remote instruction since any technology that supported remote learners could be used in the classroom as well. This included webcams, drawing tablets, document cameras, iPads, as well as “Zoom stations” in the form of separate laptops in each classroom to allow students from home to join their in-person peers in class. I gave teachers a choice of which technology they wanted to use and helped many of them figure out which tool would help them the most.

Once we made it through the first few months of hyflex instruction–troubleshooting sound and video issues as well as learning how to incorporate new technologies into the classroom, making sure that families all knew how to access digital tools needed for at-home learners, and making sure that students had the technology they needed, I have finally been able to get enough space to begin to look at the big picture and think both reflectively and ahead.

With 7 months of pandemic teaching and learning behind us, and with Spring Break in full swing, I can finally take a minute to reflect on what I have learned and what I am thinking moving forward.

  1. We are stewards and gatekeepers of student privacy and the security of our school community

It is vital that schools vet all of the digital tools they plan on using with students and read privacy policies carefully. Look for language around what happens to data if the company is sold and look for how the company shares (or doesn’t share) data with third parties. It’s always a good idea to check if the company is or has ever been a signatory of the Student Privacy Pledge.

As stewards of our community, schools should also think twice before implementing proctoring software, which has been proven to discriminate against students of color simply due to the algorithms built into the software. Similarly, tools that scan and monitor student documents and digital activity both in and out of school can violate student privacy in the name of safety. Tools that allow teachers to take over student machines and view their screens during class play a similar role, swapping safety for classroom management. This may be an unpopular opinion but communities that rely solely on tech to manage behavior or monitor the well-being of students are headed down a slippery slope. 

That said, taking measures such as turning off external email capability for elementary students or turning off email entirely for the youngest learners is an easy way to help keep students safe. I also have a quarantine set up for emails containing a very specific list of words for our students in grades 4-8 (students get access to email in 4th grade). This prevents obscene content or vulgarities as well as many bullying messages from reaching students at all and allows us to intercept and counsel students who may be sending harassing or inappropriate emails.

Additionally, schools should be working on shoring up their cybersecurity. Humans are the weakest link and social engineering is the new way that systems are compromised. We are implementing a phishing campaign using KnowBe4 and plan to also implement stronger passwords and eventually multi-factor authorization. Any good cybersecurity plan includes thoughtfully implemented education and training, which we are hoping goes as smoothly as possible for us!

  1. Communication planning is key

One of the biggest challenges in the beginning of the year was getting families all of the information they needed for at-home learning. This meant passwords, website and schedules all needed to be communicated clearly and concisely and in a timely way. I often waited to send communication so that it all came at once rather than in pieces. When possible, I personalized information through a mail merge so families had a PDF and an email to refer to if they forgot their information. I coordinated with all of our Academic Directors to make sure that my communication was in line with any they were sending out.

We decided early on to maintain a consistent LMS for each division, which also helped keep communication somewhat streamlined and consistent across our Lower, Middle, and Upper Schools. Each LMS was age appropriate with PreK-4 using SeeSaw, 5-8 using Google Classroom and 9-12 using Canvas. We also created simple student, faculty and parent portals on our website as a landing page for information and links to digital resources and tools.

Similarly, I wanted to make sure that communication with faculty and staff was clear and effective. I began a weekly “Tech Update” on Fridays where I share tips, articles and important information. These newsletters, created in Smore, are then archived and stored in a Google Drive folder that is shared with all faculty and staff and linked at the bottom of each new newsletter. With a lack of professional development time and with the constraints that kept me out of classrooms and turned all faculty meetings into Zoom meetings, this was the easiest way to communicate with faculty and staff and give them a resource that lived past that day. 

Timing, collaboration and a “less is more” approach has been overall fairly successful so far. 

  1. Teachers are unbelievably hard working and flexible

I have been so impressed with how our faculty quickly adapted to “hyflex” teaching and using tech to reach both their in-person students and their students joining through Zoom. It was fascinating to watch how differently each teacher leveraged the tech they were provided. I ended up learning a lot from them! I often pick my teachers’ brains when juggling a decision or to get a better sense of what is working and what isn’t. Still, teachers are exhausted. I make it a point to support my faculty so that they only have to focus on teaching and learning and leave the troubleshooting to the Tech Department. 

  1. Schools are about relationships as much as teaching and learning

I joined the school community at a time when teaching and learning is so disjointed and I never got to meet the faculty as a group before the first day of school. Nine months later I can say that the relationships I’ve built with the faculty and staff have made all of the difference. I see this in the work that faculty do with their students. Whether it is how they work hard to engage their at-home learners and give them opportunities to connect with their classmates directly, or the way they sit in the hallway and pop on Zoom to connect with students at home directly on a one-to-one basis, how they allow for fun anecdotes in the classroom to help kids get to know each other, or how faculty work together to support struggling students and to create a safety net for them. The care and empathy that teachers have shown has done more this school year than any unit or lesson.

  1. Technology is only as powerful and effective as the pedagogy behind it

As I researched over the summer how schools were supporting hyflex teaching I was in total sticker shock. There were cameras and mics that would follow the teacher wherever they went in the classroom, and schools invested in monitoring software to help make sure that kids were “on task.” Yet, no amount of monitoring or fancy a/v setup will fix poor pedagogy. Unfortunately, teaching through COVID caused many educators to throw what they know to be good pedagogy to the wind to adapt to teaching behind a mask and a plastic barrier, or even a shower curtain in some classrooms. Teachers had to learn how to connect with students sitting in socially distanced rows behind masks and barriers of their own. 

However, teachers who feel strongly about student agency or about collaboration or lifting up diverse voices and experiences in their classroom still made that happen this year, and technology was the avenue for this work, not the focus. Teachers who found success often found new ways to engage students using technology rather than trying to replicate “school as we knew it” on a computer. Teachers provided lots of opportunities for small group discussions, they helped students process local, national and global events, they guided students in asynchronous and synchronous digital collaboration, sometimes even pairing an in-person student with an at-home learner, and they still found ways for students to share ideas together through tools like Padlet, PearDeck or Nearpod. A colleague told me, anecdotally, that they have found it easier than ever to really get to know their students and provide meaningful feedback in a way that they couldn’t before. This is pedagogy leading the way, finding ways to leverage technology to improve upon a (strong) pedagogical practice from before the pandemic.

Looking Ahead

As I look ahead to next year I am still staring down a amorphous void, but this time, I have started engaging my faculty in conversations about this past year and what went well, what can improve, what kinds of things we should keep doing, and what kinds of things we want to push even farther to try next year. This is such a powerful juncture in the life of a school. It is an opportunity to self-reflect and plan for success in a way we’ve never done before. 

I’m also working on a longer term plan that ties into our school’s core Quaker values and engaging stakeholders along the way for feedback. If anything, this year has forced us to ask “why” and “why not” and I’m excited to explore those questions as we close out the school year. 

How are you reflecting on this year like no other and looking ahead to the future? 

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