EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the fifth in a series examining how local school districts are handling instruction in the era of COVID-19. The sixth story will appear in next week’s edition.
When Tom Walker became the director of technology for the Massac Unit 1 School District, he had two goals in mind: eliminate in-house services and servers and get better internet service to school buildings and the district office.
That foresight has provided a technology backbone that can better handle instruction in the era of COVID-19.
“We couldn’t have done this five years ago, even if we had unlimited sources of money,” he said of the current education situation.
When COVID first hit the area in March, Walker said the district’s big focus was the meal delivery system followed by making sure communication systems were established so teachers could talk to parents and students with emails by individual, class or groups. There weren’t enough computers for each student to receive one, so teachers used a paper pack system with the completed work being submitted via a snapshot sent through the district’s texting system.
But as the weeks went on, “we know this was not going to be an ordinary school year,” Walker said of the current 2020-21 year. “Early in June with the CARES money, we were able to get the computers we needed. I’ve always wanted to make sure we were one-to-one at some point; financially we could never do it.”
Those 1800 Chromebooks for all kindergarteners through 12th-graders arrived just as the 2020-21 school year kicked off. They were distributed within three weeks.
“We had to unbox them, get them with their chargers, enter each into a database for each student and assign each a user name and password,” Walker said. “We had a lot of volunteers help — I can’t say enough about the people I work with pitching in and helping out, a lot of long days and weekends went into getting it together.
“The nice thing is everything the student does online is saved to the cloud. If their Chromebook breaks, we can hand them another and they haven’t lost anything, everything automatically saves. That’s one reason I was such a a proponent for the Chromebook because I didn’t have to worry about local files.”
Unit 1 began using Chromebooks in October 2012. So when the decision was made to approach the 2020-21 school year in a hybrid fashion with in-person and remote learning, that was one less obstacle students and teachers had to hurdle.
“We start really early, at kindergarten, with how you sign in and as they get older how to use the different tools. I know grades two through 12 up until last year all knew their individual logins and were ready to go. Some were accustom to Google Classroom, depending on who the teacher was. I don’t think there was much a learning curve for them. They were used to it.
“We made sure several years ago that every teacher had a Chromebook. I recommended them using it, but I left it up to them. We’ve offered online professional development, but a lot have taught themselves,” Walker continued, noting new Chromebooks for teachers are expected to arrive later this month with dock-mounted cameras for teachers expected in February 2021.
“I don’t think that gets enough mention — with the pandemic, so many devices are hard to come by based on supply and demand. We were one of the lucky ones for the students’ Chromebooks,” Walker added.
As the school year has progressed, “the learning curve we’re finding out was more on the parents’ side — showing them what their child has been doing and will be taking home now,” Walker said.
To assist with that Walker’s wife and other teachers are creating online videos for training purposes for parents, students and other staff.
Walker was hired by Unit 1 in March 2007 to work on computers half the day and teach high school math the other. That summer, when current-superintendent Jason Hayes was named Massac County High School assistant principal, Walker was moved to his position as tech coordinator. Around five years ago, the position was changed to an administrative one and Walker was named director of technology.
Along with overseeing the technology services for the district’s eight buildings, which includes seven schools and the district office, Walker also pulls together submits teacher and student information for the district’s state and local reporting.
“It’s hard to talk about because there are so many little things that go on,” he said. “The joke’s been if it has a button or is online, that’s what I deal with. I also do a lot of non-tech related things, too. I’m a jack of all trades but certainly haven’t mastered any of it yet.”
Walker is marking his 14th year with the district he has worn many hats for, including pre-K principal for a couple years; district homeless liaison for several years; and teaching pre-algebra to AP calculus at the high school.
“My job has shifted over my time here. I’m all over the place. I just want to help,” he said.
Walker graduated from a small high school in New Jersey then went to community college. After finishing his associate’s, he decided to transfer to Murray State University to teach high school math and minor in computer information systems. He finished his master’s degree in school administration five years ago.
“It was always the joke: my parents (his dad is from Murray) were into computers and they had their first computers in the house in 1979, three years before I was born. I literally did grow up with it,” Walker said.
Unit 1 is a Google school district, using the company’s products since July 2009.
“As far as I know, we were one of the first school districts in this area to go down that road; it was several years later McCracken, SIU and Murray State jumped on it. For our monitoring tool, Securely, we were the sixth district in the world to jump on that one in April 2013; we’re on year seven. It’s interesting to be on the cutting edge of certain things,” Walker said.
Teachers began using Google Classroom several years ago. The online learning management system has now become the teachers’ portal for sending out announcements, videos or website links for students to check out, assignments, quizzes. Teachers can even use the system to grade assignments, which can then link back up to an online grade book.
“The neat thing to see is from last year to this year, the usage has increased fourfold. We had a couple hundred classrooms now we’re almost 800; which means almost every single teacher is using it,” Walker said. “Google Classroom is their one-stop shop for whatever they do in whatever class they’re in. It all links together and back to our main information system. Parents can also access it as long as their student is in a class — the parent can contact the teacher, teachers can invite them to the classroom, teachers can send the parent a weekly classroom summary: here’s this assignment, here’s what’s missing, here’s what’s going on without having to hover over the student’s shoulder.”
A new feature Unit 1 is using is KMI. Walker noted that while it has its hangups, the pdf annotation tool provides a worksheet students can fill out on their touch screens like it’s paper and submit it through Google Classroom.
But even with all of the planning, there will be a few hiccups. For example, on parent-teacher conference day, a network issue at Unity had to be resolved quickly for the remote discussions to continue.
“That’s the trick: there are so many moving parts,” Walker said. “Anytime there’s a major outage, sometimes it requires me to run. A lot of times when we go offline, it’s not causes of ourselves. I try to make sure, as best we can, that things are up, especially now. That’s kind of trickled out into the home, for even having access in the first place, which is why we handed out hotspots. It’s gotta be there, especially now. ”
No matter how students are using Unit 1 technology, their safety is always a concern.
Since 2013, one facet Walker oversees is online student monitoring.
“It’s for safety concerns,” he emphasized. “We get a flag if someone is threatening to harm themselves or showing signs of depression. If something comes up, we notify the principal who notifies the parents, or the police depending on the severity. Sometimes it’s false flags because a student’s doing research for a reports It’s especially important now when everyone’s mental health is on edge with everything that’s going on.”