How one school district is making simultaneous online, in-person learning engaging for all

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SUSQUEHANNA TOWNSHIP, Pa. (WHTM) — Remote learning may be the safest option for some students during the coronavirus pandemic, but it comes with some real challenges.

How do you keep students engaged?

What if a student has a question for the teacher?

How do parents working from home juggle work responsibilities and helping their kids with school work?

Susquehanna Township School District came up with a solution.

“We set out to develop a learning experience for our virtual learners that mirrored the experience for our in person learners,” said Dr. Tamara Willis, the superintendent of Susquehanna Township School District.

Students learn in a classroom at Susquehanna Township High School (WHTM Photo)
Students learn in a classroom at Susquehanna Township High School (WHTM Photo)

“We came up with the idea that — ‘What if we taught remote students and physically present students at the same time?’ Everybody seeing the same experience, which most schools are not doing,” said Justin Green, the director of technology for the district.

With the help of Microsoft Teams Meetings and HP, the district created All Remote Access for its five campuses. Almost all of its 207 teachers use the technology solution.

“It is just a great thing to be able to do for the kids,” Robert McDonald said.

McDonald is an environmental science and biology teacher at Susquehanna Township High School.

“I may have 6 kids here in the classroom and at the same time I am delivering instruction to the kids at home,” McDonald said.

The students at home are logged in on Microsoft Teams Meetings and watching the class in real time on their laptops.

The cameras used to show the board or documents (left) and the front of the classroom (right) in Susquehanna Township High School (WHTM Photo)
The cameras used to show the board or documents (left) and the front of the classroom (right) in Susquehanna Township High School (WHTM Photo)

To make this work, two cameras were installed in the classroom.

“One camera is a 180-degree panoramic camera that captures the entire front of the room. As I move back and forth and talk, the kids can see and hear me. I can also hear them. I can use the other camera to show the board. It can also double as a document camera or I can swing it down and forward to show a demonstration. Then that all gets piped out to the internet to the kids that are sitting at home,” McDonald said.

ARA was the best option for 3rd grader Emily Fleming. She was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes, which can make her immune system weaker. If she contracted COVID-19, it could be deadly.

“It is like you are in virtual reality. I love it so much,” Emily said.

Robert McDonald teaches a class at Susquehanna Township High School (WHTM Photo)
Robert McDonald teaches a class at Susquehanna Township High School (WHTM Photo)

Emily’s father, who works from home, loves the interaction his daughter can have with the teacher.

“I am just a few feet away from her and I can hear the teacher as she is explaining. They can raise their hands, ask questions, and have a back and forth. As a result, the kids are more attentive,” Justin Fleming said. “This really meets the needs of parents who are working from home and can’t exactly be there every minute with their child to guide them through their educational journey.”

Although the grades for the semester are not in yet, the feedback has been positive. The district plans on keeping ARA as an option for students after the pandemic.

“Through this technology, we have literally removed the walls of the school. Now learning can happen anywhere,” Dr. Willis said.

The devices, hot spots and cameras cost the district over $500,000, to serve about 1,434 of 2,841 students using the ARA technology. Susquehanna Township School District was able to offset the cost with CARES Act funding and some savings the district had from closing school early last year due to the pandemic.

Partnering with the national non-profit Solutions Journalism Network, Nexstar stations nationwide are telling unique stories about how the pandemic has exposed inequities for students and the solutions some groups have found to bridge that gap.

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