If there’s one thing the current pandemic has made obvious, it’s the importance of technology in our lives.
Millions of Americans are able to stay at home, and stay safer, because of video conferencing applications that allow for people in all different locations to see and speak with one another as if sitting in the same room. And nowhere has such software been more essential than in local schools.
Since the spring, schools have been operating, in some capacity, within the virtual realm. In mid-March, school buildings in Cheshire and across Connecticut were closed, and they did not reopen until September. That meant all of the learning was happening online.
Now, Cheshire students are back in the classrooms, at least part of the time, and a sizeable donation from the Cheshire Education Foundation will help to make that transition from in-person to online instruction more seamless.
Last month, the CEF donated $30,000 to Cheshire Public Schools. The money will be earmarked for technological improvements allowing for students who are attending classes remotely to have as near a “normal” instruction experience as possible.
The money will allow the District to upgrade technology in 10 classrooms with what is being called Extended Engagement Systems. The upgrades include the installation of a camera in the ceiling of the classroom so those at home can have a much clearer view of both the teacher and the Smartboard being utilized during instruction. Four speakers are also installed in the ceiling, allowing for at-home students to hear not only their teacher, who wears a microphone throughout the class, but also their peers who are in class at the time.
“At this time of need, when maintaining the quality of education for our children is so important, we are honored to provide this help,” said CEF chair Jane Leukart. The donation is one of the largest ever made by the Foundation, Leukart explained, and the largest offered to the District in the last decade.
Over the summer, Cheshire outfitted approximately 60 classrooms in different schools with the technology upgrades, anticipating a fall semester that would require students to learn remotely some or all of the time. Since the reopening of school buildings in September, Cheshire High School has employed a hybrid model, where certain students attend classes one day while learning remotely the next. On Wednesdays, all students at CHS have a remote-learning day.
At the elementary schools, in-person instruction is taking place during the full week, however parents did have the opportunity to request that their children remain remote for the semester and positive COVID cases have forced added reliance on remote learning.
“The addition of 10 more of these Extended Engagement classrooms will allow our students in the room to hear both their teacher and their peers with greater clarity, improving the experience for all. Moreover, during this time when many learners are participating from home, the video quality provides equity among all learners,” said Superintendent of Schools Dr. Jeff Solan.
According to Dennis Deninger, a longtime member of the Cheshire Education Foundation, the group decided to donate such a large sum from its fund precisely because the need was so apparent. During a meeting at the beginning of the current school year, Solan requested some funds to further enhance the District’s efforts to improve the quality of online instruction, and Deninger stated that the CEF Board’s response was, “Let’s do this.”
What made donating the funds even more attractive, Deninger stated, is the knowledge that these classroom enhancements will be utilized long after the pandemic has subsided. Solan has stated that the video and audio upgrades will allow teachers to expand on their offerings in the future, and will also now allow for students who, for whatever reason, cannot attend class in person to not miss a day of instruction.
“That was very reassuring to know this is not just some sort of stop gap,” said Deninger.
“This is exactly what CEF is for,” he continued. “We are here to enhance the delivery of education to students in any way that we can. If it is vital to improve learning, then it’s something that CEF is committed to (helping provide).”
Not all classrooms are outfitted with the technology upgrades, but Deninger stated that, according to the CEF student rep, those who are able to utilize the system have reported nothing but positive results. Also, in a release from the School District announcing the donation, CHS chemistry teacher Susan Chasen was quoted as saying, “The camera and microphone system in my room really helps the in-person students and the remote students participate in discussions with me and with each other … I like that I am wearing a microphone so students at home can hear me well as I walk around the room and that the speakers and microphone in the ceiling help the students hear each other whether they are in the classroom or at home.”
In addition to the actual donation, Deninger, a professor at Syracuse University who spent a number of years employed by ESPN, was able to involve students from a CHS marketing class. At the request of Solan, Deninger enlisted the students’ help in crafting press releases and seeking out more information about the technology and donation.
“It was just another way to get the kids involved, and they did an outstanding job,” said Deninger.