After hurricane, technology eases return to school
Smartphone exchanges, social media, messaging apps and 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 from Houston teacher Kristen McClintock helped Foust's daughter who 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 to boost engagement and 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 before school was canceled giving 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,” said 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 the electricity, necessary to power electronics. The U.S. territory has 350,000 students.
The Orange County district, like others, has strict rules that prohibit penalizing students who lack access to electricity or the internet outside of school.
In Florida, all 2.8 million students missed school for at least two days because of Irma, 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 so it's unknown how many students will enroll.
In the Houston area, too, many of the 1.4 million students affected by Harvey may find themselves taking virtual field trips and conducting online science experiments using technology adopted by many schools in response to budget cuts.
While schools were still closed in the Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District, it posted a three-page list of educational websites for students at every grade level to access as constructive time-fillers.
"So much of what they have been doing for years is all online, and they're just used to doing it that way," said Nicole Ray, a district spokeswoman.
The disasters, which could leave buildings shuttered or drive away teachers, are also seen as openings to expand "virtual teaching" - services that have teachers provide instruction remotely by video conference.
Orange County has been looking into using the videoconferencing program Safari Montage Live to let students unable to make it back to town right away join their classrooms remotely. The program is being piloted now for a class being "co-taught" by two teachers in different buildings.
"We want schools to be successful when students return," Milano said. "We want connectivity to be happening in every classroom and we want there to be that seamless uninterrupted period of learning."