Jay County High School teacher Zach Keller works on a math problem using his document camera and ViewSonic screen during calculus class Monday. He also uses the technology to record the lessons for students to review as needed. (The Commercial Review/Ray Cooney)
Jay County High School teacher Zach Keller works on a math problem using his document camera and ViewSonic screen during calculus class Monday. He also uses the technology to record the lessons for students to review as needed. (The Commercial Review/Ray Cooney)

E-learning came to Jay Schools for the first time in 2019, an effort to save days of classes lost to inclement weather.

In March it became a necessity because of coronavirus pandemic shutdowns.

Now, it’s a way of life.

Jay School Corporation was one of 30 districts in Indiana to get a financial boost to implement the new reality, receiving $161,775.61 in grant funds from the Center of Excellence in Leadership of Learning (CELL) through the Governor's Emergency Education Relief Fund.

A total of $4.8 million was awarded to rural districts.

“These grants will allow us to meet the unique needs of rural school districts and ensure that students and teachers have access to the technology they require to succeed,” said former CELL executive director Janet Boyle in a press release. “We are grateful to the governor’s office for this valuable opportunity to address the immediate concerns of the pandemic and to prepare educators in these school districts for the technological demands of the future.”

The grant funding is being used locally to purchase equipment for real-time remote education, as Jay Schools has more than 400 virtual students this year. That includes ViewSonic touch screens, Bluetooth headsets and other hardware and software needed to make the process work as smoothly as possible.

It costs about $475 per classroom, Clark said, though some rooms were already equipped with Clevertouch screens.

The grant dollars are also being used for wifi hotspots for students who do not have reliable internet connections at home.

The new real-time learning equipment is already in use at Jay County Junior-Senior High School. It is at various stages of being implemented at the elementary school buildings.

“That money has been extremely helpful to get connected as soon as possible,” said Katie Clark, director of e-learning for Jay Schools. “It’s really helpful to the kids that are at home. … This is something that obviously has changed the whole world of education — not just us, we’re not unique in that. But I think that we are unique in the way that our teachers have responded.”

JCHS English language arts teacher Whitney Freeman said it was a bit of a transition at the start of the year, but that implementation has gone fairly well.

She typically uses Google Meet to incorporate virtual students into the classroom — the Bluetooth headset ensures good sound quality rather than depending on a laptop microphone — and records the lessons so students can refer back to them later, if needed. She also makes sure to have some one-on-one time to check in with her virtual students and the beginning and/or end of each class period.

“It was a little daunting to think about doing two environments at once, especially going from 75 minutes to a 50-minute period,” she said, referencing the school’s shift form block scheduling to a seven-period day. “Now the kids are getting used to it and I am getting used to it. … It’s getting easier.”

She added that having lessons available in live and recorded forms has helped students keep up when they have had to quarantine either because of COVID-19.

Zach Keller, who makes frequent use of the touch screen and/or document camera during his JCHS math classes, agreed that there was a transition period. While he had already been recording lessons in previous years, the Bluetooth headset helps make the process smoother, he added.

He’s noticed the need for more intentional communication with virtual students because he doesn’t get the instant visual feedback from them that he might get in the classroom. He counts on virtual students to ask questions via his headset or by email after class.

“The live thing is interesting, because you have your (in-person) class that you’re teaching to but then you have (virtual students),” said Keller. “So things get lost in translation sometimes. I’ve noticed that I have to be more intentional about the real-time learners. I have to ask more specific questions, make sure they understand it. There’s a lot more communication outside of class time.”

In addition to the funding to help with student learning, the grant also includes an educational component for teachers.

CELL (at the University of Indianapolis) is partnering with Central Indiana Educational Service Center (CIESC) during the next two years for “educational capacity.” Essentially, Jay County is part of a group of schools that will share professional development resources and work together to become more effective virtual educators.

The group also includes Delaware Community Schools, Franklin County, Logansport, Mount Vernon, Randolph Central and Union County school corporations, among others.

One of the keys for Jay Schools as it considered equipment and professional development was keeping an eye on the long-term, Clark said.

“We’re being very mindful of what’s best for students and not what is the new, flashy technology that’s available,” she added. “We’ve been very mindful about, when we buy new technology, what does it do now, what will it do in the future and is the cost worth the benefit?”