After hurricane, technology eases return to school
After hurricane, technology eases return to school

Smartphone exchanges. Social media. Messaging apps. Websites. They all helped students. They rendered students and their teachers at once disconnected and connected in the aftermath of hurricanes Harvey and Irma.

Now advocates of technology say it will only become more important in aiding students scattered by the storms. This recovery has potential to demonstrate how much instruction can carry on outside school walls amid future natural disasters and other disruptions. That's what administrators say.

"Oh, it was wonderful," said Gay Foust. Emailed and texted materials came from Houston teacher Kristen McClintock. They helped Foust's daughter. Her daughter has autism. She coped with the disruption of having to stay at a friend's home when their house flooded during Harvey.

"We're not in Miss McClintock's classroom. We're not in school. And yet she was able to reach out and check on all of her students and offer any kind of help, assistance," Gay Foust said.

Florida's Orange County Public Schools distributed about 75,000 laptops to middle and high school students and teachers earlier this year. The idea  is to personalize learning. They want to boost engagement. And they want to boost achievement. To do so, they are providing students with unlimited access to their textbooks. They are also providing access to other materials, schedules and assignments.

District officials were eager to assess how the devices fared in the students' care. This came after advising them through social media to charge and then unplug them and seal them in plastic bags. Now schools are prepared to reopen after Hurricane Irma.

Many teachers posted assignments. They posted them before school was canceled. That gave students a chance to get ahead. And college-bound students could continue preparing for the SATs.

"This is really our chance to make sure all of our systems are working the way we want them to." That's according to Mariel Milano. She is the director for digital curriculum.

There is one benefit when disasters strike. There are fewer textbooks to get soggy or wash away. But Hurricane Maria offered a reminder that even technology has its limitations. Authorities predict schools in Puerto Rico could be without electricity. It is necessary to power electronics. The U.S. territory has 350,000 students.

The Orange County district has strict rules. These rules prohibit penalizing students who lack access to electricity. Or those that don’t have internet outside of school.

In Florida all 2.8 million students missed school for at least two days because of Irma. That's according to Gov. Rick Scott. He said the state's existing virtual public school would provide remote access and materials to those who are still displaced. It would also provide digital replacements for resources brick-and-mortar buildings may have lost. The hardest-hit districts are only beginning to reopen. It's unknown how many students will enroll.

In the Houston area, 1.4 million students were affected by Harvey. They may find themselves taking virtual field trips. They may also be conducting online science experiments. They would use technology adopted by many schools in response to budget cuts.

Schools were still closed in the Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District. It posted a three-page list of educational websites. These were for students at every grade level. They could access them as constructive time-fillers.

"So much of what they have been doing for years is all online. They're just used to doing it that way," said Nicole Ray. She is a district spokeswoman.

The disasters could leave buildings shuttered. They could drive away teachers. But they are also seen as openings to expand "virtual teaching.” These are services where teachers provide instruction remotely by video conference.

Orange County has been looking into a videoconferencing program. It is called Safari Montage Live. It will let students unable to make it back to town right away join their classrooms remotely. The program is being piloted now. It is for a class being "co-taught" by two teachers. They are in different buildings.

"We want schools to be successful when students return," Milano said. "We want connectivity to be happening in every classroom.  We want there to be that seamless uninterrupted period of learning."

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