A countywide rollout of Google Meet video conferencing began this week at Frederick County Public Schools in an effort to enhance the school system’s continuity through distance learning.
The rollout comes after the technology was field-tested in Tuscarora feeder pattern schools for several weeks.
Through the technology, teachers can set up live online sessions with students to offer additional educational support. Google Meet is not being used for live, virtual lessons.
“There is no direct instruction of new material in a Google Meet session; it is intended for support only,” Kristen Canning, principal of Ballenger Creek Elementary School, said in an email. Ballenger Creek Elementary was one of the pilot schools.
Use of the platform is optional for both teachers and students. Teachers who do choose to use it are not required to hold sessions every day and students are not required to join in.
Guidelines and restrictions have also been put in place to ensure safety of students online, such as no recording of sessions, and students having the option to join with only audio and no video. Students must also have a permission slip signed by a parent or guardian before being allowed to participate.
“While we did not hear from parents who shared specific concerns, we want them to be able to opt out if they are not comfortable which is why it is 100 percent optional for all students,” Canning said.
Schools Superintendent Terry Alban said making sure the technology was safe before implementation was their top priority, which is why FCPS took longer than other districts in the state to begin using video conferencing.
“Our technology folks were like, ‘you will not use Zoom, it’s not secure, absolutely not’ and yet other districts were using it... We’ve gone a little bit more slow and steady there,” Alban said.
Kimberly Mazaleski, principal of Tuscarora Elementary School – another pilot school – said she appreciates that FCPS took its time.
“I think that not rushing it was a very wise idea...we were able to avoid some of the pitfalls that you see in other places around the country,” Mazaleski said. “We haven’t dragged our feet but we have been careful and done it strategically.”
Jessica Skaare’s son, Jackson, is a fifth-grader at Ballenger Creek Elementary. He has participated in Google Meet sessions with his teacher for almost a month now. Skaare said she understands that it took time to put in place but wishes it had been available sooner.
“When we went to distance learning back in March — that was my concern — was no live connection,” Skaare said. “Google Meet has been a game changer...it’s like he’s in class. He gets dressed, he’s ready to go, he’s not in his pajamas, he’s not in his bedroom, he’s in his learning spot.”
Not only has it provided Jackson with a sense of structure during an uncertain time, Skaare says it has also helped him feel social again.
“He is an only child so he was really missing just the simple connection to his teacher and to his classmates,” Skaare said.
That simple connection of just seeing one’s classroom community is critical, especially with elementary schoolers, said Denise Davis a fourth-grade teacher at Tuscarora Elementary.
“Teaching, especially at an elementary school level, it’s all about the connections you have with your kids,” she said. “All of us felt so isolated from our classes that once we heard we were going to be able to do the Google Meets, everyone was just so excited...and when we actually saw our kids, it was like oh my goodness, finally, sunshine.”
Mazaleski said use of video conferencing gives a social-emotional touch to distance learning, something that many students and teachers have been missing.
Additionally, Mazaleski said that since piloting Google Meet, they have seen an overall improvement in student performance.
“We saw a lot of our kids begin to turn in more work and participate and ask more questions when they had the ability to touch base with their teachers in this way,” Mazaleski said.
Both herself and Davis said live, virtual sessions, whether through Google Meet or something else, will be an important aspect to distance learning if it continues past the summer. It helps students get extra help, feel connected, and stay motivated.
“I think it’s showing [students]...their teacher and their school and their classmates, we’re just all there to support each other and continue the learning...it shows them perseverance,” Davis said.