Keep on Learning… Virtually

Keep on Learning…

The logistics of educating Fauquier County’s students virtually

In March of 2020, the whole world was blindsided by the COVID pandemic. Due to the isolation safety measures that have followed, everyone turned to the internet for work, socialization, and recreation as person to person interaction almost disappeared. While living in a completely virtual world certainly has its disadvantages, we can be glad that at least we have the technology that can sometimes somewhat mitigate the effects of isolation that can be, in some cases, drastic.

Technology cannot solve some of the critical problems that isolation presents to our school-age children — the losses of socialization, personal interaction, extracurricular activities, sports, and sense of community — but it may be able to be used to salvage some of the academics. Fauquier County Public Schools teachers and staff are working hard to make this happen as quickly and as simply as possible for our students.

While teachers were developing creative lesson plans that would still engage students when delivered virtually, and so many others were addressing the mind-boggling number of other related issues, the technology team at FCPS tackled the most basic problem: getting internet and devices into the hands of students who needed them. These efforts, and others, continue as the schools look forward to the coming fall semester. 

Louis McDonald, Director of Technology Services at Fauquier County Public Schools, spoke to us at length about how the schools are addressing — and, in some cases, solving — these challenges. 

 

Lifestyle: Can you give me an overview of the logistics of continuing education virtually?

McDonald: Classroom content will be made available in a digital format that can be downloaded, as well as available as a paper packet if the student’s access to the internet is limited or non-existent. Students will engage in a combination of synchronous (at a set time and day on a schedule, as would happen in a regular school day) and asynchronous (within a given time frame, but not at the same time) learning experiences. The video sessions can be recorded and provided for download or streamed for later review. Our learning management environment allows for offline work by students that can be uploaded later for review by the instructor. 

Instructional staff is intensely working to develop materials that support their students. Having to consider each student’s digital limitations (e.g. internet, device capability) while developing lesson plans is a challenge that can push the creativity envelope. 

Lifestyle: Do you expect, and did you have in the spring, any technical glitches with the online system? Did any students have difficulty accessing what they needed to? Was there a need for technical support?

McDonald: During the spring and summer sessions, we did establish a support line for students. Members of the technology team, who were also supporting staff, checked the email and voicemail regularly and resolved any issues. We only received about a dozen issues submitted to the support line. It is possible that students may have also reached out directly to their teachers if they were having issues (e.g. I am having difficulty downloading the document). 

Lifestyle: How many students in Fauquier do you estimate don’t have the technology or internet access needed? 

McDonald: Data from The Center for Internet as Infrastructure (i3connect.org), indicates about 8 percent of our county population does not have a computer, which could translate to over 800 students.

When it comes to the internet, I3 shows 12 percent of our county population is without access, which translates to approximately 1,300 students. That number would be slightly lower if you assessed this by household instead of individual students, considering multiple students could belong to the same family. 

Lifestyle: The PATH foundation worked to provide — and is still supporting — wireless hotspots to the more remote areas. Did that work well? Was it enough? 

McDonald: The county’s partnership with the PATH Foundation to provide its citizens with access to the internet in needed areas of the county is greatly appreciated. This service, along with our deployment of 10 buses outfitted with hotspots and access to 250 personal hotspot devices available for check-out from FCPS, provided our students the opportunity to access the internet when needed. The hotspots enabled students to access the internet to download materials/upload completed assignments, but most of the work itself could be done offline at home. Internet research or tasks that require longer time online would involve more time parked at the spot. Students could also use these hotspots to check in with their teacher with perhaps a short video chat. 

Our bus hotspots had various levels of activity and the County-provided locations, in our testing, appeared to perform well. One item to note is that the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) does require FCPS to block students’ access to content that could be harmful to minors, which is implemented in the personal hotspots and the bus hotspots provided by the schools. The hotspots provided by the county are not required to  perform content filtering. 

Lifestyle: In the spring, the schools were able to provide devices to some of the students who needed them. How many were you able to distribute? How are you approaching that for the coming school year? 

McDonald: During the spring, with the goal of providing every family in need with one Chromebook, our inventory enabled us to help about 500 students. 

For the fall, the challenge is greater. We have a current inventory of approximately 3,000 Chromebooks. We have an additional 7,400 on order, but there is no estimate on delivery due to the impacted supply chain. As in the spring, we would revisit requests for multiple devices per household only if there was any inventory remaining. Just like hotspots, our Chromebooks have content filtering enabled when they access the internet. 

Lifestyle: In a perfect world, every student would have a laptop or ipad for educational purposes. Is that a realistic dream for Fauquier County? 

McDonald: It is a goal that we would hope to achieve. Currently, funding for student computers in the schools comes from the Commonwealth’s SOL Technology Initiative. Prior to COVID-19, we were working towards the goal of achieving a student to computer ratio of 1:1 in all three county high schools over the next year. Federal funding associated with COVID-19 has given us the opportunity to accelerate this at the high school level, and we look towards achieving this ratio to other grade levels in the future.

Our price point for a Chromebook is $350. This includes the cost for the Google management license, a four-year onsite warranty support, protective cover, and setup/delivery. Using 11,000 as a student population, the estimated purchase price is almost $3.9 million if we were to provide all students a new Chromebook at the same time. There are additional expenses associated with support such as parts and content filtering that could total about $150,000 per year. 

Lifestyle: The questions I’m asking are mostly about problems and challenges. Tell me something positive. What are the silver linings hiding in this situation? 

McDonald: From technology’s perspective, the pandemic has brought to the forefront the digital equity gap, highlighting the limit or lack of access to the internet for students. Numerous national educational organizations (e.g. ISTE, CoSN) have been lobbying Congress to provide more funding to close the gap. This movement could benefit localities who are hoping to expand the internet footprint in their county. 

Another popular discussion is how the pandemic might reinvent education. Instructional staff are being challenged to be creative in how to deliver content in a non-traditional classroom where the usual interpersonal techniques are not available. Our staff will have learned so much from this situation: new teaching techniques, new ways of helping students learn, and a growth mindset. This insight can be helpful in supporting our students in their learning journey when we are able to return to a traditional classroom setting. 

Lifestyle: Is there anything else you’d like the community to know? 

McDonald: During this time, our staff, both instructional and non-instructional, have stepped up to the challenge posed by this crisis. In the spring, we were suddenly blindsided by a situation that required many people to quickly adapt their work style. Students and families have also had to think outside the box and change their mindset to work and learn in this new world. 

The solution wasn’t perfect in its implementation, but we continue to gather information and adjust our operational model. When we return to a form of normal, what we have learned during this time will hopefully have a positive impact on our path forward. 

 

Staff/Contributed
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