A YEAR OF COVID-19: During a difficult year for schools, virtual technology emerged as a bright spot | Health

Mar. 15—Computer technology that allowed students to keep studying after COVID-19 closed schools a year ago will continue to help them learn as the viral threat lessens and classes return to normal. Students and families who enjoyed studying from home might continue doing so, but schools also can present guest […]

Mar. 15—Computer technology that allowed students to keep studying after COVID-19 closed schools a year ago will continue to help them learn as the viral threat lessens and classes return to normal.

Students and families who enjoyed studying from home might continue doing so, but schools also can present guest speakers, host parent conferences and live stream sports, plays and concerts on video links. Now that schools have issued computers, students can use those devices in classrooms and for homework.

During a difficult year, virtual technology emerged as a bright spot.

“We moved a district of nearly 12,000 students to a digital platform within a matter of weeks back in March 2020,” Hazleton Area Superintendent Brian Uplinger said.

Hazleton Area also purchased thousands of computers and received hundreds more as gifts from Amazon and the Mericle Foundation.

Computers help teachers reach students who learn in different ways. Instead of lecturing for entire classes, teachers also ask students to work alone on computers and complete projects in groups, which Uplinger said happened in elementary schools before the pandemic.

Some first graders learned numbers during the pandemic by playing virtual bingo. They dragged dots across the screen to cover numbers that their teacher called out.

“It’s been really phenomenal to see the intuitiveness of our teachers and the work that they put in to be able to so quickly adapt to this type of educational environmental,” Nicholas Flaim, a Hazleton Area school psychologist who watched the numbers drill, said.

Students who have computers and internet access at home can hold a video conference to work on group projects after school.

Weatherly Area School District had state approval to flex to virtual learning for snow days before the pandemic, and the district’s teachers and students moved lessons online quickly when COVID-19 stormed into the region.

“Our instruction never stopped, whether it was virtual, hybrid or in-person,” Superintendent Teresa Young said.

Overcoming fears

After teaching all students virtually in the spring of 2020, Weatherly Area in the fall started classes in person up to four days a week for elementary and middle school students. A resurgence of the pandemic drove all classes online again on Dec. 1, but all students, including high schoolers, have had opportunities to attend classes in person a few days a week since Jan. 19.

“There is a unique relationship between a teacher and their students and what happens in a classroom that cannot be replicated through remote learning,” Young said in an email.

But she said remote learning made teachers and students more able to use technology.

Cathy Colangelo of Partners in Education said as students ask and answer questions in classes online they’re overcoming fears of being on camera and developing communications skills.

“They are probably going to be more resilient and less fazed by changes that happen in the workplace because of what they are experiencing now,” Colangelo said.

Virtual classes also extend the reach of Partners in Education, which enlists local business people to help students from Hazleton Area, Weatherly Area and Crestwood school districts graduate with skills to succeed.

This spring 35 students from several high schools enrolled in a course about project management that Partners in Education offers after school.

“We are now able to offer more learning opportunities to more students, and they are definitely taking advantage of it,” Colangelo said.

New skills apparent

At Wilkes University, which adjusted its admissions process to account for changes that the pandemic caused in high school classes and extracurricular activities, Kishan Zuber, vice president of enrollment, said incoming students showed skills that will help them in college and on the job.

“We see students using technology in new and creative ways, leveraging these powerful tools to stay connected, learn and generate new ideas,” Zuber said by email.

At Holy Family Academy in Hazleton, pupils attended classes in person since September.

But holy Mass streams onto their classroom screens once a week.

Guest speakers also appear through video linkups.

During the summer, teachers didn’t know if they would return to classrooms so they practiced for virtual education.

When asked to hold online classes on snowy days and in the weeks after Thanksgiving and Christmas breaks, teachers showed flexibility.

“They not only welcomed it, they thrived. When we’ve gone to virtual snow days, it’s been seamless,” Holy Family Principal Jason Tribbett said.

When bad weather hits in Freeland, MMI Preparatory School switches to virtual classes sometimes and cancels on other days to give students unexpected holidays.

“There is a certain joy in having a snow day,” Justin Kleinheider, the head of school, said.

While most MMI students attend in person, teachers stream and record classes for students who chose to study from home or who are sick.

More options online

Video also offers an economical way for guest speakers to address teachers during training sessions and students during classes or assemblies.

Parents will have options to attend conferences with teachers on days when they don’t have time to leave their jobs.

In Crestwood schools, about 650 of 3,000 students switched to the district’s cyber academy during the pandemic. Those students study at home at their own pace. Cyber school gives high school students flexibility to work and still complete their school requirements.

Meetings that Crestwood School Board shows live on Facebook and YouTube routinely draw more than 2,000 viewers.

Crestwood Superintendent Robert Mehalick, who has a been on Hazleton School Board for 12 years, said recording and posting meetings online never occurred to him before the pandemic. He used to wonder if small turnouts at meetings meant that people didn’t care.

“People do care, but to get to a meeting could be very time consuming,” Mehalick said. “The access to the public is what I think is going to be most important. We now have this platform to take questions, answer questions (and) have these people be part of our district in a closer way than ever before.”

First Lady Jill Biden spoke to Crestwood faculty and students by video in September, and Mehalick said the district now can arrange for guests to train teachers or speak to students without paying for travel and lodging.

Students in the newest sport at Crestwood play all their games online. Esports club members compete against teams from along the East Coast without leaving their desks.

Like other schools, Crestwood streamed sports for fans who couldn’t attend because of limits on crowds during the pandemic. Mehalick plans to stream plays, concerts, awards assemblies, as well as games. One woman told Mehalick that her brother watches his nephew play sports at Crestwood, from his home in Europe.

Contact the writer: [email protected]; 570-501-3587

(c)2021 the Standard-Speaker (Hazleton, Pa.)

Visit the Standard-Speaker (Hazleton, Pa.) at standardspeaker.com

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