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Technology Department Provides Support as Distance Learning Grows

on May 20, 2020

When it was announced on a Friday afternoon that students, faculty, and staff would not be coming back the following Monday because of the pandemic, teachers acted quickly to post lessons on Google Classroom to suffice until classroom activities started up again.

Preparing for a longer closure, the Warwick Valley Central School District’s IT Department – a team of three Instructional Technology Facilitators (ITF), two Cloud Integration Engineers and four Computer Technicians – helped activate Warwick’s distance learning plan from a temporary solution to a fully realized system of software, hardware, platforms and support that has transformed how the district communicates and collaborates under the “new normal.”

“No one could have predicted these circumstances or the pressure they would place on our district to devise and implement a learning model that would be engaging and enriching for our students in such a short time,” said Superintendent Dr. David Leach. “We did in weeks what could otherwise have taken months. Our IT support has been a driving force behind our success by providing both technology and training.”

The IT Department is comprised of Brittni Aberasturi, ITF at Sanfordville Elementary School; Yvonne Koulikov, ITF at the Middle School and High School; Amanda Melican, ITF at Park Avenue; Senior Cloud Integration Engineer Ab Hamdoun; Junior Cloud Integration Engineer Jordan Cangialosi; and computer technicians Julian Negri, Pete Presti, and Dave Robbins.

Their first step toward making distance learning effective was to ensure district families had the technology they needed for their new at-home learning spaces. Within two school days of the closure, the IT team and school administrators had signed out hundreds of Chromebooks – 150-plus at Park Avenue and an additional 300 to 400 at the Middle School alone. Over the ensuing weeks, district techs have been fulfilling new laptop requests as they come in, delivering them to students’ homes often within 24 hours.

Ms. Melican said that the quick closure left the team with no opportunity to provide in-person professional development sessions that would have helped teachers get comfortable with the technology.

“Under typical circumstances, they would join us for an in-person meeting, and we’d go over the different functions of Google Classroom and our other district-approved resources,” said Ms. Melican.

When that wasn’t an option, the team decided to proceed by using the technology itself to lead teachers through fully executing distance learning. The Google platform has previously been in use in the district and students are required to use their Google accounts to log in to the student portal, so there was a familiarity to build upon.

“We made the decision to use Google Classroom to share our own how-to content with teachers,” said Melican. “We posted different types of content, including videos on how to post on Google Classroom, how to make a topic, how to add slides, how to make copies for students.”

Ms. Koulikov also began moving school staff into the remote learning process by reposting Google tutorials she had originally created for Back-to-School Night. Teachers are now confidently delivering curated content that their students find relevant in a meaningful way.

“Everyone seems to have gotten into a good flow and is handling everything well,” said Ms. Aberasturi, who also said that ongoing professional development opportunities are now posted weekly at each school. 

“I post a Google Form each week that teachers can use to sign up for one of my three daily professional development sessions,” she said. “Each one provides a how-to lesson on one of the different tools we’re using.”

Ms. Koulikov leads between 10 and 18 Google Meets for faculty every week.

Yvonne Koulikov, ITF at the Middle School and High School

“Amanda, Brittni and I each have teachers sign up using Google Forms, and choose a virtual meeting time,” she said. “Once we begin the Google Meet, we can share screens with them and walk them through anything they want. We can even show them what their content looks like to a student viewing it live or archived.”

In fact, the three ITFs are available for one-on-one support to teachers, students, and parents alike through Google Meets, email and even text messaging. The IT team has established a help desk to answer general technology questions and to troubleshoot specific issues.

All of this virtual assistance has been appreciated across the district.

“Our techs are providing one-on-one support for everything from hardware to platforms, making sure the tools we need are working for the students, parents, and us,” said Sanfordville Elementary School Principal Johnna Maraia.

“We also create screencasts for specific how-to sessions which teachers can watch at their own convenience, and we’ve heard that those have been super helpful,” said Melican.

For teachers who may not be able to make a technology Google Meet because they are leading their own class session – or they’re helping their own children with homework – the screencasts are another way they can access these resources as needed.

“Our district culture is one of continual improvement and ensuring that we’re giving our students the best instruction and experience possible,” said Ms. Aberasturi.

“The efforts of the IT Department over these two months have been nothing short of remarkable,” said Assistant Superintendent of Instruction James Yap. “They continue to go above and beyond for our faculty and for our parents, providing the tools and knowledge they need to engage and enrich our students during these difficult times.”

With many platforms solidly in place to carry Warwick’s students and faculty through the end of the year, the tech team is reflecting on the feedback they’re receiving and looking ahead to next year. 

“We’re navigating uncharted waters,” said Ms. Melican. “But we’re learning what tools work best, and which ones the teachers may want to keep using once we’re back at our buildings.”

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