Friday, December 4, 2020

RSU 14’s IT Department overcomes challenges in keeping students connected during pandemic

RSU 14 Network Administrator Mark Politano
examines a computer at Windham High School 
on Tuesday. The school district's information
technology staff has stepped up to the challenge 
of providing and servicing computer equipment 
for students who have had to study remotely
from home as a result of the pandemic.
By Elizabeth Richards

Both hybrid and full remote learning have required planning and technical support far beyond a typical year. Administrators, teachers, and technology staff have made keeping students connected – both online and emotionally – a top priority in RSU 14.

According to Director of Curriculum Christine Hesler, RSU 14 approached full remote learning differently than other districts in the area who opted to use a software called Edmentum.  In RSU 14, they wanted to ensure that remote students stayed connected to the RSU, their schools, and district staff, Hesler said.

RSU 14 provides remote teachers at each grade level, using the same curriculum, teaching strategies, and connections to the schools as students would have in person to keep things as consistent as possible.

“We felt that was really important because eventually we’re all coming back,” Hesler said. 

With the move to having students in both hybrid learning and remote learning, demand for technological solutions, and support using them, has increased.

The district is sending students as young as second or third grade home with devices for distance learning.

“We’ve never done that before,” said Bob Hickey, RSU 14 Director of Technology. “This allows students to have a device with them while they are not at school and supports both the hybrid and distance students.  We are also working on sending home devices for students as young as kindergarten and first grade.”

The district has also increased the number of devices available so that in addition to a MacBook Air for each student in grades 2 through 12, there’s an iPad for every kindergarten and first grade student instead of one for every two students as in past years, Hickey said.

“This helps with interactive tablet interfaces for young students who lack keyboarding skills,” he said.

Hickey said the district also has iPads for the 32 Pre-K students at the new program in Raymond.  “Even the youngest students show the ability to use the touchscreen and all the most successful educational apps are available on this platform.”

The district has made great efforts to provide wi-fi hotspots to families who otherwise wouldn’t have
internet access at home, so students aren’t left without support, Hickey said. 

“Some of the hotspots were free from the state, others the district paid for to bolster the availability of devices,” he said.  

Tammy Lorenzatti, Technology Instructor at Windham High School and a representative of the WHS InfoTech team, which includes librarians Amy Denecker and Kristin Chavonelle, said, “Much of the support we offer students and families comes directly through our work with teachers.”

Over the summer, she said, a district-wide team created a mini-course focused on best practices for virtual learning to help faculty and staff in RSU 14 develop experiences that would empower students to succeed.  Hesler published grade-level remote learning dashboards for teachers to access essential tools, information and materials, Lorenzatti said.

Since schools reopened, Lorenzatti said, they’ve continued to offer virtual professional development opportunities to the district.  They will be piloting a “Teacher Tech for Teachers” program, where they’ll facilitate sharing of remote teaching strategies among teachers.

“If this initiative is successful at the high school, we hope to share the opportunity with other schools in the district later this year,” she said.

Hybrid and remote learning poses many challenges, particularly when it comes to technology.  “The transition to remote learning seems to have changed almost every aspect of what we do in schools. As a result, we’ve learned to be flexible and creative in accommodating the ever-changing needs of the community,” Lorenzatti said. “We started the year aware that access to materials was going to be a greater challenge for both students and teachers.”

In order to make transitions as seamless as possible, she said, they invested in several online streaming platforms that provide teachers with digital access to movies, pop culture and educational magazines, ebooks and audiobooks.

Technology has also been used to connect teachers and students virtually.

“Beyond Meet and Zoom, we’ve purchased several Owl smart cameras, which give remote teachers full-sound and a 360-degree view of the students in their classroom. Prior to the arrival of the Owls, we had to adapt our greenscreen camera and computer station to connect remote teachers with their in-person classes at school, and using this technology, we’ve successfully enabled instruction to continue despite the distance,” Lorenzatti said.

Because streaming and online meetings have become far more frequent, Hickey said, they’ve faced a heavier reliance on the district network. To address this need, they worked with the Maine School and Library Network, who provides the district’s internet connection, to increase bandwidth from 1 Gigabit to a 2 Gigabit connection.

Increased technology use can require more troubleshooting.  Dedicated teachers and a skilled district Technology Integrator help students and families resolve issues, Hickey said.  Parents can email if their student’s account is locked out or they have hardware issues and need a replacement student device, he added.

 “While teaching in the remote and hybrid models, many teachers are the front line for students and families,” Lorenzatti said.  When difficulties arise, she said, the InfoTech team works closely with teachers to provide support both in-person and through their website,, which offers how-to guides, class guides, InfoTech resources and tools, and application tutorials.  

Federal funding efforts by staff have enabled the district to attain interactive white boards that will replace very old smart boards, whiteboards, projectors, apple TVs that communicate with the projector and sound bars, which will all be consolidated into one device, Hickey said.  “These devices will be used by the teacher and even remote students can view what is displayed on the electronic whiteboard.  It really helps to tie together the in-person folks and remote students,” he said.

District staff are creating connections beyond core academics as well.  Hesler said that UA teachers are videotaping lessons for students to participate in at home.  While these, of course, look different than face to face instruction, it allows students to continue engaging in those aspects of school.

“We cannot replicate everything, but we’re trying to think differently of how we can give kids that experience,” she said.

The InfoTech team has worked closely with teachers, club advisors, and coaches to find the most effective methods to live stream events, such as sports and virtual spirit weeks, Lorenzatti said.  The team has also created a Play site, updated every Friday, where students are provided fun, boredom blasting activities, she said. 

That site can be found at <

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