The pandemic has been a cacophony of often contradictory forces and events. There have been heroic and inspirational moments and others that have been painful and heartbreaking. There have been teenagers who refuse to turn on their cameras in their virtual classrooms and a 5-year-old proudly playing meteorologist from her backyard. Most teachers were knocking themselves out, giving considerably more time, effort, and energy to make a seemingly impossible situation work, while some students scammed the increased reliance on technology to decrease their personal accountability.
Last spring, Pine Bush was the first district in these parts to call a COVID-19-related districtwide shutdown. Teachers taught from their homes, connecting to their students via Google Classroom, with their own children and pets providing periodic distractions. We loaned Chromebooks and gave away lots of food. There were no traditional school events. The state regents exams were canceled. The class of 2020 got a virtual graduation program, a parade, and personal graduation photo ops.
Last summer, we tripled our bandwidth to support the enormous burden that video streaming placed on our network. Teachers could return to school where materials were more readily available and the network more reliable. We also made sure every student had a device, distributing 1,800 more Chromebooks and wireless hot spots to families who needed them. We all quickly improved our technology skills exponentially.
In the fall, we began all virtual, but by October, special education students were coming in daily, and elementary students could choose to remain fully virtual or hybrid where they attended in person two days each week and worked asynchronously the other three. Students in grades 7-12 remained all virtual until mid-January, when they could also choose hybrid.
By spring, we had expanded the in-person option to five days, with all-virtual students attending synchronous instruction five days a week. Everyone was excited to have more time with one another at school. A 4th grader emailed me, thrilled she was finally getting to meet her teacher “in 3D.”
While this past school year has improved immeasurably over the previous spring semester, our staff was still stressed and fatigued. I visited every one of our seven schools each week and made my robo-calls more frequent to help give folks a sense of stability.
Despite all the pain and negativity, there was success. One middle school posted student-produced video announcements. Every Pine Bush school constructed clever video messages to encourage students and welcome them to each new iteration in our instructional-delivery model. Our girls swim and volleyball teams claimed sectional championships. Our instructional coaches created videos to help parents, students, and staff learn how to navigate new technologies. Staff members began using advanced features in Google Classroom to manage online instruction. They learned how to blend synchronous and asynchronous teaching, even though more than half had never used Google Classroom before.
Charles Dickens began his 1859 novel, A Tale of Two Cities, with these words: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness … it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.” How apt this passage feels today!
Our schools are faced with great challenge and great opportunity. We can capitalize on all the new insights and skills we have gained during our circuitous journey through the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic to create an even better, more student-centered system, or we could go “the other way.” The choice is ours.
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