When the Governor made the decision to close schools late on Friday, March 13, 2020 BCS made arrangements for all of our K-5 students to pick up their 1:1 device March 16-17 (BCS was already 1:1 K-12 with all 6th – 12th graders taking devices home) and began virtual “remote learning” on Wednesday, March 18, 2021 after providing guidance and training for staff.
Over 300 teachers who did not already use a Learning Management System (LMS) were trained on Friday, March 13, 2020 before the governor’s announcement in anticipation of the changes.
We had a homework hotspot (cellular data) program with around 800 students assigned mobile hotspots (600 of which were assigned to high school students) with limited LTE data plans.
Today we have 2800 homework hotspots with the majority now having unlimited high speed data plans. We quickly learned that limited data plans did not support multiple Zoom or Google Meet sessions per day. We also learned that several areas in the county did not have adequate cellular coverage to support homework hotspots. Key areas are Broad River, Sandy Mush and certain areas of Fairview, but there are smaller pockets without cellular coverage throughout the county (e.g. areas in the Leicester area and even within the Asheville city limits).
We identified between 50 and 100 families that had essentially no access to wired or wireless high speed broadband. BCS partnered with Skyrunner and Charter to connect approximately 15 families, but unfortunately the majority of these 50-100 families did not have line of sight to a Skyrunner tower or did not live close enough to a Charter fiber line to get service. Some of these families leverage Wi-Fi at places like our Public Libraries, Broad River Fire Department or Sandy Mush Community Center, as well some travel to family and friends for Wi-Fi.
We did work with the Buncombe County Local Government to gain permission for Skyrunner to place equipment on the Broad River tower. Buncombe County Local Government in partnership with the ACS & BCS Foundation and the Housing Authority are partnering with Skyrunner to provide free Wi-Fi to each HA residence.
One key takeaway was that current satellite Internet options are less than ideal in terms of speed and latency to support virtual instruction.
We also increased staffing for our Technology Help Desk to accommodate a significant increase in support requests and provide support in English and Spanish. We provided custom training to all instructional staff including Best Practices for Remote Learning and specific Learning Management System courses for Seesaw (K-2), Google Classroom and Canvas.
Digital Learning in partnership with Curriculum, Student Services and Special Services created a Remote Learning Guide for teachers. This guide was based on data from the Friday Institute and adapted for our school system. It is continually updated as we learn more about remote learning. Digital Learning created a Virtual Days website for parents, students, teachers and staff to support remote learning. Our BCS Virtual Academy was expanded to accommodate new applicants. Digital Learning created online tutorials and professional development (BCS Digital Learning YouTube Channel) and Language Services translated tutorials into Spanish and Russian. Teachers were required to complete remote learning and LMS training at the beginning of this school year. Weekly optional live virtual trainings are available and recordings are posted on our YouTube channel. Continuing education credits are given for the trainings.
We have learned a great deal due to this unprecedented pandemic. One thing is for sure, our staff and students are resilient and they have, for the most part, adapted to online learning during this challenging time while also becoming more technologically savvy.Barry Pace, Director of Technology, Buncombe County Schools