A look back at online schooling during the 2020-21 school year

By Nitya Hosur, Editorial Intern
Posted 8/25/21

Over the 2020-21 school year, the pandemic forced many utilities and services to shut down, including schools. Katy ISD shifted all methods of teaching and communication to an online platform to …

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A look back at online schooling during the 2020-21 school year

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Over the 2020-21 school year, the pandemic forced many utilities and services to shut down, including schools. Katy ISD shifted all methods of teaching and communication to an online platform to ensure the safety of the students.

“But, the fortunate thing was that we as a team came together and figured out the best way to get (digital) devices out to our students,” KISD Director of Instructional Technology Darlene Rankin.

 She said the district was informed the schools might be shut down at spring break of 2020. They had no idea if the shutdown would last the rest of the school year, but prepared for the worst. Rankin said the reason KISD was equipped for the sudden shutdown was because it had always been technologically advanced. Teachers had many digital resources and digital e-books had been in place for a long time.

Rankin said there had also been a learning management system in place for seven years that allowed teachers to utilize online resources in numerous ways, such as spreading information to their pupils, introducing themselves and providing students with digital access to resources.

Rankin said that to prepare for the shutdown, district officials also ensured all students had a device. Earlier, Rankin said, multiple students in households could share one device since most of their learning took place face to face. With the shutdown, it was now necessary for each student to have a device, and parents couldn’t always buy multiple machines, prompting the distribution of Chromebooks and tablets by the district.

To get the devices out, KISD staff utilized their e-news platform. The communications team was essential for informing the community. Manager of Media Relations & Multimedia Maria DiPetta was instrumental in contacting and updating parents about device distributions and other pieces of crucial information, Rankin said.

“As we learned more information,” Rankin said, “We would work with Communications to get that information out to our parents, and one of those big things was that if you needed an additional device or a hotspot, here is where you go to complete a form, fill it out and someone from (the Technology Department) will contact you in order to give you instructions on how to get that device.”

As parents filled out the forms, engineers in the Technology Department went to the school to pick up the devices for distribution. A central checkout location was established at the administration building where devices and hotspots were handed out. The items were put in the trunks of the cars to make ensure there was no contact involved to reduce the risk of COVID-19 exposure.

Rankin said the whole community helped, from Communications spreading the message to Technology recovering devices and setting up hotspots. Katy ISD police officers even helped direct traffic for drive-through computer pickups. Rankin said the drives were a huge success, and about 35,000 devices and 300 hotspots were lent out to families.

KISD also continued its Parent Support Center, she said. Parents needed instructions on how to access Zoom and Canvas, the district’s learning management system. The Communications Department again was essential, Rankin said, and online meetings and seminars were held to help parents and students.

“It was a big team effort from Communications to Technology, to our superintendent - the whole team - and I think that’s what Katy ISD is best at, whole teams coming and working together,” Rankin said.

Despite the shift to a completely online platform, KISD faced minimal issues regarding technology. However, Rankin said, one of the biggest problems was students’ mental health. Many felt like they were living a monotonous life, staring at the screen for eight hours a day, and faced personal challenges at home due to the pandemic. Additionally, small children especially had trouble, Rankin said, because their parents often had to work and care for the family concurrently.

To combat the mental health concerns, Rankin said KISD tried to make virtual learning similar to in-person school and increased interaction between the teachers and students. Online school followed the regular school bell schedule, and teachers were allowed to let students off Zoom after they had finished their work to take a break from being online. For parents, communication was key, and the district tried to make the online learning platform easy for them.

“I think that the emotional part of this was people really experiencing Covid in their own households, their families struggling, and we were really worried and concerned,” Rankin said.

Rankin said that, in order to ensure that students were logging on and learning properly, the Intelligence Department built a dashboard for principals, assistant principals and district leaders that allowed them to see who wasn’t logging on or didn’t have access to information and learning resources. Teachers also had this information so they could improve the virtual experience to make it smoother for students.

Rankin said all the technological improvements during the pandemic helped strengthen the foundations of KISD for the future. One lasting effect was for absent students. Teachers now knew how to properly teach through online platforms. If a student could not attend class, teachers could effectively give all the information about the topics learned in class to the student with no decrease in quality.

DiPetta the new technology helped to further the Strategic Design Plan for Katy ISD. The SDP is a roadmap published every five years for the district to follow on how to improve itself. DiPetta said that with the new methods of teaching and information spreading, the SDP saw great leaps and accomplished many of the goals outlined in the plan.

“This was such a significant time during the pandemic,” Rankin said, “where we all worked as a team to help our community.”

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