(TNS) – When students at Lincoln Lutheran School started their computers and logged into Zoom to learn from home last February, it wasn’t for COVID-19 reasons.
An arctic cold snap in Nebraska had dropped temperatures to dangerous levels, forcing a second straight day of snow for the city’s schools.
But not to Lincoln Lutheran.
The Northeast Lincoln Parish School for Grades 6 to 12 continued classes as normal that day, with teachers relying on the technology they used during the pandemic to reach students – like the stunning Swivl webcams, which mimic in-person learning, and Zoom.
The staff had somehow realized: the technology that helped keep the school afloat during the pandemic is here to stay.
“We have invested quite heavily in this technology and we will continue to hold onto it,” said director Matt Heibel.
It’s also an investment private schools in Lincoln and Nebraska are making, as the pandemic has shown that technology has become more of an integral part of the classroom than ever.
To his credit, Lincoln Lutheran has become somewhat of a leader in this regard. In early 2020, when news of a mysterious disease causing pneumonia reached sister schools in Asia, Lloyd Sommerer, the school’s technology coordinator, knew they had to act.
“Lloyd came over one morning and said, ‘We have to talk,’” Heibel said. “We saw that was something that was going to happen.”
So the school bought Zoom licenses and ordered webcams, which remained closed in boxes, with staff not even knowing if they would even need them. But it soon became clear the need was there when schools finally closed in March 2020 as COVID-19 crept into Nebraska.
This gear isn’t going to be fitting in a box anytime soon.
In addition to webcams, large-screen TVs were installed in classrooms in the fall, projecting the faces of distance learning students – whether because they chose to be full-time virtual learners, have been quarantined due to COVID-19 or have disappeared for some other reason.
“We asked a kid to participate in a Zoomer hockey tournament from his phone in his car,” Heibel said.
The school’s personal device program, in which students bring their own tablets or laptops to class, had been in use for years, making the transition even smoother.
“Technology has been built into what we’ve been doing here for quite some time now,” he said.
And although Heibel does not foresee such a significant need for distance learning due to pandemic reasons this fall, he said the school will continue to allow students and teachers to visit remotely if they are sick or absent for another reason.
And snowy days will be a thing of the past – or almost. If there is a multi-day closure due to weather at the LPS, Lincoln Lutheran will only close on the first day.
“The big overall picture is to be flexible,” Heibel said.
In the Diocese of Lincoln, which covers the southern half of the state, authorities are in the early stages of rolling out an individual tablet program to its five high schools, including Pius X. It plans to use about 1.5 million in the state’s virus relief money is intended to fill technology gaps in schools to pay for the devices, but the deployment timeline is not yet known.
Individual plans, like the Lincoln Public Schools Chromebook initiative, have never really been part of the diocese’s philosophy, said Rev. Matthew Zimmer, director of education technology. But the pandemic was a game-changer, with textbook publishers saying they would switch to digital-only editions in the future sooner than expected due to the pandemic.
Instead of a 5-10 year timeframe to go digital, publishers are now looking at a 2-5 year timeframe, Zimmer said.
“It’s accelerated to the point where we said, ‘We have to do this,'” Zimmer said of the rollout of an individual program. “The pandemic has pushed back this timeline. “
But it’s not just a race to beat the clock when it comes to school tech.
The pandemic has also opened doors for diocesan schools to be even more connected, Zimmer said. Teachers and administrators statewide, for example, can meet virtually through Microsoft Teams instead of having to travel long distances for monthly conferences. And in rural areas, students will be able to move away in classrooms, a practice already in place before COVID-19 but more necessary than ever due to the shortage of teachers.
“We are a very large diocese. You speak of Falls City to McCook,” he said. “(The technology) has really made a connection with schools that didn’t exist before.”
Lincoln Christian, a K-12 parish school in southeast Lincoln, instituted an individual Chromebook program for its elementary and junior high school students during the pandemic and made devices available to its high school students, a said Superintendent Zach Kassebaum. The school has also increased internet speeds and strengthened its firewall, all in response to growing technological needs.
This fall, however, the focus will be on face-to-face learning, unless extenuating circumstances force a student to walk away, Kassebaum said.
“We have clearly seen that face-to-face learning (is) socially, emotionally and intellectually better for children of primary, secondary and secondary age,” he said.
At Parkview Christian, the pandemic has given classroom technology a big boost. Last summer, Sandhills Global partnered with the school to deliver 70 Chromebooks to students, while boosting internet access for high school students and upgrading the school’s projectors and hard drives.
Like Lincoln Christian, Parkview Christian will continue to rely on daily in-person interaction rather than distance learning this coming school year. Virtual options, however, will always be available if a student or family members have health concerns, a schools spokesperson said.
This seems to be the central theme of Lincoln Parish Schools going forward: even with a greater technological presence in schools, make in-person learning a priority.
“Distance learning was a necessary evil,” said Lincoln Diocese Zimmer. “It’s definitely not as effective as a face-to-face class.”
© 2021 Lincoln Journal Star, Neb. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.