Pandemic increases use of online technology in schools and creates “a problatunity” for improvements |

When the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in a statewide lockdown a year ago, schools and educators scrambled to make a transition to online instruction.

Rhonda Rabbitt, the dean of Wilkes University’s School of Education, said the pandemic created what she calls “a problatunity.”

“I believe that right now we are in the middle of a probletunity,” Rabbitt said. “So COVID has been a problem, but this is like a wake up call to America. And this is an opportunity because our school systems were designed for an environment 100 years ago, and we continuously try to tweak, band aid, reform, make minor adjustments to fix it. But the issues that we are getting is because the system was designed the way it was. So this is a chance for us to redesign the school system.”

Rabbit saw a need to help teachers with the transition to online instruction.

“In the fall of last year, my team and I, we said teachers need help. What can we do for them? So we put together a two day series of free online webinars, Zoom learning sessions for teachers to address the gap, whether that was how to do online teaching, how to work with your English language learners online, how to get family engagement now that you’re online. So we posted those free of charge on our website so teachers could access that at anytime.”

The pandemic has created an opportunity to partner with school districts “so that they can design a strategic plan to get their teachers professionally developed and how to design and teach online,” Rabbit said.

“We can work with them on that,” she added. “We can offer them a program package just for them so they can make systems change.”

In March 2020, Gov. Tom Wolf closed all schools in Pennsylvania for the rest of the school year and required they provide remote instruction. The state gave local schools officials the authority to decide how much in-person learning and how much online instruction their schools would provide during the 2020-21 school year.

“Every district’s model of teaching and learning was flipped upside down on March 13 of last year. Schools want students on campus and in their buildings every day and that will happen once the pandemic subsides,” said Anthony Grieco, executive director of Luzerne Intermediate Unit 18.

Online technology will continue to be “infused into the teaching and learning environment” in schools after the pandemic, Grieco said.

“Districts have invested significant dollars in getting devices into the hands of all students, and teachers have invested a significant amount of time modifying their teaching and learning practices to engage students in multiple ways across multiple platforms,” Grieco said.

Northwest Area School District Superintendent Joseph Long said his staff “has become far more used to using technology, not just as an aide, but now a tool to increase education and the educational experience.”

Schools will have to flexible with instructions options in the future, but the “best education a child can receive in my opinion is in front of a teacher five days a week,” Long said.

“Coming out of this I hope one change will be the state government gets involved and pushes the issue of connectivity in rural areas,” Long said. “The biggest challenge our district faced throughout was the lack of a consistent broadband for our students.”

Dallas School District has increased use of streaming video as result of the pandemic, and more students enrolled in the district’s cyber education service, Superintendent Thomas Duffy said.

“Beyond the pandemic, streaming capabilities may be useful for professional development purposes, communication with and among stakeholders a including parents and families, and possibly when students cannot attend school for extended periods of time in the future on a case by case basis,” Duffy said.

Dallas teachers have become skilled at using Google Classroom to organize, present and store materials and resources and to collect student work, and they will be able to continue doing that after the pandemic, Duffy said.

Cyber, charter and private schools

More than 400 Dallas students enrolled in the Dallas cyber school this year, Duffy said. More than 2,500 students are enrolled in Dallas schools.

“Even as conditions improve we recognize that some may choose to stay in a cyber environment for years to follow,” Duffy said. “We have and will continue to serve our cyber students in cyber school well this year, but we also have to look at what we learned about cyber school with an enrollment this large and what we can build upon for future years.”

During the pandemic, brick-and-mortar charter and private schools provided “an alternative for parents to have their children placed in schools that remained open and could offer smaller class sizes,” Grieco said. But he believes that “the majority of students will return” to public schools.

Cyber charter schools “will see an uptick in enrollment, not just now but even in post-pandemic as some students may prefer to participate in school in a full virtual environment,” Grieco said.

Cleaning and hygiene

Grieco said he believes schools will continue with enhanced cleaning protocols, including deep cleaning with electrostatic, and they will also prioritize air ionization and air quality management.

Long said “the wearing of masks, washing of hands, and the use of hand sanitizer will be around for some time.”

Grieco doesn’t think students will be required to be vaccinated prior to the start of the 2021-22 school year.

“I do believe vaccines will become available to some school age students prior to September 2021 but not mandated,” he said.

Higher Education

Colleges and universities will continue to move forward using technology for more distance learning options, said Rev. John J. Ryan, president of King’s College.

“I think the pandemic accelerated some trends that were already in place,” Ryan said.

“New technologies in higher education were gradually being implemented, but one thing the pandemic did was it forced a critical mass of faculty and staff to engage the technology in mass. That was a challenge and opportunity for all schools, when you had to pivot from in person to not only online, but the hybrid courses. It forced a lot of embracement of technology in large numbers across wide swaths of the higher education landscape.”

But increase in distance learning “won’t replace the in person instruction” at higher educations institutions, Ryan said.

“It will augment it. The students want to be in the class and they prefer not to be online,” Ryan said.

More students in higher education will be studying in science, technology and healthcare fields in the aftermath of the pandemic, Ryan said.

“If you are not preparing yourself for being able to engage or work with technologies, it’s going to be difficult future for you. Robotics and artificial intelligence are going to be the future,” Ryan said.

Thomas P. Leary, president of Luzerne County Community College, said “the online delivery will continue to be an important option for people because of the demands of their life, their jobs, their children and some other obligations.”

The pandemic accelerated the use of distance learning “at a much higher pace than we would have imagined,” Leary said.

“When you close because of weather, we are going to be prepared to transition to remote delivery so that the schedule and the continuity is not interrupted,” Leary said. “The technology has changed the way the world is doing business. For a long time, educators sometimes were set in their ways. … higher education in general thought that this is the way you do things and everybody has to follow. I think that’s going to change dramatically.”