Daryl Diamond, PhD Director, Innovative Learning, Broward County Public Schools
When COVID-19 became all too prevalentBroward County Public Schools (BCPS) decided to close its brick and mortar schools on March 13, 2020. We faced the same decisions plaguing all school districts regarding how to deliver engaging teaching and learning experiences while keeping administrators, teachers, support staff, and students safe from a public health emergency that was moving fast and not well understood.
Most school districts across the nation see their responses to COVID as “emergency remote teaching and online learning” rather than a well-planned online learning experience. While moving instruction online can enable the flexibility of teaching and learning anywhere, anytime, the speed with which this move to online instruction happened was both unprecedented and staggering.
To improve instruction and student engagement for the upcoming school year, BCPS began developing multiple workstreams to address an ambiguous reopening of school as either face-to-face, a hybrid model, or totally e-Learning. This article will describe some of the actions that were initially taken to ensure that “learning never closes”.
The first need was to ensure that all students had access to laptop devices and internet connectivity. The school district provided over 100,000 devices to students, with hotspots to students without a permanent address. Agreements with local internet providers were made enabling qualified families to have affordable access to the internet (Access from AT&T and Internet Essentials from Comcast). Through a partnership with Microsoft students can download the Microsoft Office Suite on up to five personal devices giving them access to multiple productivity tools to complete assignments. With access online came the need to ensure the safety of our students while on the internet. Digital citizenship and digital safety lessons were made available to students arranged by grade level.
"To improve instruction and student engagement for the upcoming school year, BCPS began developing multiple work streams to address an ambiguous reopening of school as either face-to-face, a hybrid model, or totally e-Learning"
As part of our commitment to supporting families and employees engaging in distance learning, the District established a dedicated technical support line called the Virtual Call Center to assist with computer-related issues and needs. BCPS parents, students, and staff are encouraged to call the technical support line if they have questions or need help with operating the computer device, fixing the computer device, obtaining a computer device or using academic platforms or programs enabling e-learning. Physical support at nine (9) select locations is provided at least three (3) days a week that is managed through appointments created from the Virtual Call Center.
Next, we needed to communicate this information to our families. A dedicated website was created with pertinent information to ensure that our students and families had access to educational resources. The website is entitled “Learning Never Closes” and can be found at https://www.browardschools.com/learningnevercloses.
Over the years Broward created a digital ecosystem able to sustain the e-learning world in which we now find ourselves. We built a robust and redundant infrastructure adding multiple components to enable ease of use of our multiple digital platforms. Our Office of Information and Technology through our Clever Single-Sign-On Launch Pad enables students to access all their digital resources in one place after authenticating themselves with username and password.
Four years ago, the District streamlined multiple platforms into one learning management system (Canvas by Instructure) and trained staff and students on its use for daily instruction in a blended learning environment. Canvas is now being used as our asynchronous classroom and is a way to simplify teaching and learning by connecting all the digital tools teachers and students use in one easy place. With Canvas, students can receive course announcements, manage upcoming assignments for all courses in one calendar, submit assignments, take quizzes, receive feedback about their work, and communicate with teachers and other students. Microsoft Teams is being used to deliver web conferences where students and teachers meet synchronously for delivery of daily instruction. Students access their daily Teams link from their Canvas Announcement page.
Student engagement in the e-learning space requires teacher engagement and an ability to teach at a distance, as well as administrator engagement and an ability to lead at a distance. BCPS and the Office of Academics focused on the training and support of its staff to be able to use these two digital tools (Canvas and Microsoft Teams) to deliver and monitor instruction. From March through June the School District trained over 11,000 teachers and support staff on using Canvas to deliver content and over 500 administrators on how to use Canvas to lead at a distance. Over the summer in preparation for an ambiguous school opening, an additional 6,000 instructional staff members participated in professional learning on these two platforms.
An integral part to ensure that our students are engaged in the e-learning experience is to inform our parents and garner their support. Once Broward determined that the new school year would begin in an e-learning environment, our parents raised high expectations for engaging and interactive lessons between students and teachers. To keep our parents informed on how this was going to be delivered we began our Parent University (https://www.browardschools.com/parentuniversity.) Using Microsoft Teams Live we were able to reach over 60,000 parents over four nights withover 40,000 parents watching the recordings of these events to date. Parent nights will be continued throughout the school year as we, hopefully, begin a return to our brick and mortar schools as the numbers in COVID cases decline.
Last, we continue to focus on the social and emotional well-being of our student, staff, and administrators in these unprecedented times. During this time of physical distancing, Broward is getting connected through mindfulness to support one another as we reduce stress, build resiliency, and cultivate well-being. To learn more click here to visit the Mindfulness in BCPS Canvas portal that was created to provide students, families, and staff with high quality online mindfulness-based education, support, and resources.
Jonathan Daitch, Associate Provost for Online Education, Western University of Health Sciences and Jonathan Labovitz, DPM, FACFAS, CHCQM, Associate Dean, Clinical Education and Graduate Placement Professor, College of Podiatric Medicine at Western University of Health Sciences