When the pandemic changed the way schools operate, Jason Borgen, the chief technology officer at the Santa Cruz County Office of Education, and his colleagues had to make sure students had the tools they needed to learn from home and teachers were trained on how to navigate distance learning and online classroom settings.
When the COVID-19 pandemic changed the landscape for schools across the globe virtually overnight, Jason Borgen and his colleagues at the Santa Cruz County Office of Education were faced with a Herculean task.
Across the county, teaching and learning for some 40,000 students and about 2,000 to 3,000 educators needed to change to accommodate a new reality where in-person gatherings and face-to-face interactions suddenly carried inherent risks.
For Borgen, the chief technology officer at the County Office of Education, that meant making sure students had the tools they needed — chief among them a speedy internet connection — and teachers had to be trained on how to navigate distance learning and online classroom settings.
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Teachers, Borgen said, were put in a predicament. They needed to change the way they were doing things — and fast — or they weren’t going to effectively teach their students.
“It was truly, truly an amazing shift to see some of these educators, not necessarily 100% willingly, but make the shift,” he said. “And 100% of the educators have made the shift.”
With a background in teaching and tech, few were better equipped to help spearhead the undertaking than Borgen, though he is quick to point to a team effort.
“It definitely takes a village to support these efforts,” he said.
When the pandemic upended the way schools were used to functioning, among the first steps for Borgen and his colleagues was to align all the districts and get everyone on board in terms of what the county was trying to do.
“Not only around safety and precautions but also around instruction,” Borgen said.
His second area of focus was to make sure no student was left behind. Or in this case, offline.
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Districts mobilized to get hot spots for kids who didn’t have them. Many schools created WiFi zones in their parking lots, big antennas reaching about 1,000 feet outside the school grounds. Borgen worked closely with internet service provider Cruzio to develop its Equal Access Santa Cruz program.
The program, intended to bring high-speed internet to Santa Cruz residents regardless of income-level, provides families with free service, including WiFi, for three months and then “a heavily-discounted rate thereafter,” according to the provider’s website.
Borgen and his office also helped organize trainings.
In March, when the virus first tightened its grip on the country, hundreds of teachers were trained in effective online and blended teaching.
“And these teachers really took some time to try things out and understand that it’s okay to fail,” Borgen said. “That sometimes the students may know more than you on the technology and that’s OK.”
Then they put on a three-day virtual leadership summit in June, to teach school leaders how to support distance learning. It was so successful, Borgen said, that the county office of education held a follow-up event in November to go deeper on distance learning for leaders. And in August, the office conducted a distance learning bootcamp for teachers.
For all the good work put in, everyone recognizes that distance learning has its limitations.
At times students fall behind or don’t show up. It can be a burden on parents, too, who have to juggle jobs with students who are suddenly working from home. Grading may differ from teacher to teacher. And if a student is struggling with an assignment and has nobody to support them, they’re going to give up, Borgen said.
Still, Borgen says the pandemic has been a catalyst of sorts to support “transformative education.” It has taught students some important lessons they may need when they grow up and get a job, from virtual collaboration to the idea of listening to an authority figure remotely.
Borgen’s own 7-year-old daughter, for instance, got the chance to email her teacher, asking why she was put into a specific math group. Whereas before she would have just talked to her teacher face-to-face, she now had to learn how to compose an email.
“I mean, that’s an important skill that people are going to need,” Borgen said.
Although learning for adolescents and young people works best face-to-face, Borgen said, creating a blended learning approach may be something schools look at as they reform educational models.
“And that doesn’t mean necessarily Zoom meetings,” he said. “But it means providing digital resources for students to engage in learning anytime, anywhere.”