Students across the many programs at Ulster BOCES have remained immersed in their education this year, despite the many changes that were needed to address complex, pandemic-related scheduling needs and individual students’ desire to learn remotely. Thanks to the adaptability of Ulster BOCES instructors, who quickly adopted the use of an advanced video camera system called the Neat Bar, classrooms were quickly turned into robust, interactive “Zoom Rooms.” These rooms are equipped with enhanced audio and video capabilities (including large video screens), which enable students to stay engaged in their learning and remain connected to their classmates and instructors.
Ulster BOCES offered in-person, hybrid, and remote options for learning this year, depending on the program. Instruction at the Centers for Innovative Teaching and Learning at Port Ewen, Anna Devine, and Ramapo had the physical space available in their classrooms for students to attend in-person five days a week. At the Hudson Valley Pathways Academy, Phoenix Academy, and Career & Technical Center, hybrid schedules that were structured around a cohort model were available to provide a mix of in-person and remote learning.
For example, in order to adapt the Career & Technical Center’s popular career-focused, hands-on learning model to provide the required space for social distancing and accommodate the home school districts’ hybrid scheduling challenges, the daily half-day schedule of previous years was replaced with a weekly on-site extended-day model. Additional time for virtual lessons was offered throughout the week. Students who elected to participate in a remote-learning experience are able to join their classmates virtually through enhanced Zoom classes.
According to Dr. Charles Khoury, Ulster BOCES District Superintendent, “Our priority for serving Career & Technical Center students was to design a flexible learning experience that would provide instruction in theory–along with practical skills development–through live virtual events, such as demonstrations, field trips, guest speakers, and simulated work experiences.” Woven into these experiences, says Khoury, are opportunities for students to remain connected to their classmates and for staff to be attentive to students’ social-emotional well-being.
For instance, in the Career & Technical Center’s Cisco & Cybersecurity classroom, Henry Castro, an in-person student from the Highland Central School District, recently collaborated on a lesson with Brendan Myers, a remote learner from the Saugerties Central School District. In the lesson, the class was learning how to hypothetically configure a server using IP version 6 addresses. Using the Neat Bar system, which allows remote students to see, hear, and engage with their teachers and classmates, Henry was able to walk Brendan through the configuration process.
Dr. Kathy Landers, the instructor of the program, says, “Neat is a game-changer, and it provides students with a win-win opportunity. The best way for students to learn is to teach each other, and although these students were not in the same physical space, the collaboration continued.”
Criminal Justice student Kayla Best, from the Wallkill Central School District, says the Neat Bar has enriched her educational experience by allowing industry professionals to “visit” virtually with the class. “Being able to see everyone makes it feel like I am there with them,” she observes. Students raise their hands and ask questions, she notes, just like they would during in-person visits.
The Ulster BOCES Technology team installed 60 devices, located throughout the agency’s sites. In true BOCES fashion, students from Landers’ Cisco & Cybersecurity course worked side-by-side with the tech team on the installation at the Port Ewen training facility, gaining some true hands-on experience.
Khoury says that the ability of Ulster BOCES to adapt to the pandemic challenges was apparent from the start. “Our leadership team took a long-range approach to last March’s school closure,” he said. “Right from day one, we recognized that this was likely going to be a life-changing event and that adapting was going to be necessary to ensure student needs could be met in this new reality we were living.”
In response to the pandemic, the leadership team first shifted its focus to the immediate goal of making sure that students had the social-emotional support they needed to cope with the crisis. A team of mental health professionals, supported by building administrators, instructional staff, and the transportation department, jumped into action to ensure that connections with students remained strong. The team, which became known as the “Pit Crew,” provided the essential home-to-school connection at a time of sudden isolation and made sure that families knew that help was there if needed.
“We then began reimagining what education can be and created an environment where we could continue to help our students remain engaged in their education and reach their fullest potential,” he explains. “While there is no substitute for human contact in teaching, having the right technology in place, with instructors who are motivated to embrace new thinking, created a dynamic virtual environment that allowed our students to continue to thrive.”
Khoury says that the lessons learned this past year will have a lasting impact on post-pandemic education. “As we look ahead to the future, one thing is evident: change. Responding to the pandemic forced changes that would have otherwise taken many, many years to achieve,” he says. “We’ve learned a lot, and we now are at a place where we can reimagine an education that is better for students. It’s an exciting place to be.”
- Career & Technical Education (CTE)