BRIDGEWATER, NJ - The Bridgewater-Raritan Regional School District is soldiering on in the face of COVID-19, and is utilizing several different technology tools to enhance all-virtual learning for the first month of the new school year.

"It's a year like no other," said district supervisor Jaimee Kochis, who oversaw the presentation that was delivered to the board of education Sept. 8

The district shifted its plans to all-virtual learning for the first month of school due to COVID-19 concerns, with the hope of employing a hybrid model made up of both virtual and in-person learning by Oct. 12.

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Kochis said district educators had been able to try several different tech tools in the spring, to see what they liked and to “make informed decisions” about which tools they want to use. The four technology instructional tools that garnered the most responses included Pear Deck, Kami, Screencastify and Ed Puzzle.

The first three tools are compatible with various applications in Google, which the district has used as an ongoing technology tool.

Pear Deck is an add-on to the Google Slides program, and allows educators to add interactive questions to their presentations, along with formative assessments and examinations. Kochis said that Pear Deck provides “more visually appealing templates,” and that students could also write in their answers to questions that were posed in the application.

“We’re gathering feedback from the students,” said Kochis.

Pear Deck also allows educators to “check in from far away” and see who answered questions. The premium version allows educators to pull up related reports afterwards.

Kami is an extension of Google Chrome that allows individuals to take any existing documents, including scanned PDFs (Portable Document Format), and allows them to write, draw, type, annotate and make comments to their presentations. It also syncs with Google Drive and Google Classroom.

Screencastify is another Google Chrome extension, one that allows teachers to record their presentation screens, and it also syncs with Google Drive and YouTube in a user-friendly model. Kochis said it also supports parents with resources, and provides tutorials for students.

Ed Puzzle permits teachers to fashion their own interactive video presentations by embedding questions directly into those videos. This method allows for asynchronous virtual learning, as it embeds and allows accountability and feedback from the students themselves.

Board member Barry Walker asked about originality reports regarding student work, and Kochis replied that the district now has the ability to check for plagiarism across the entire district. The high school had utilized a different program for that purpose in the past, and she added that the district is currently paying for Google Enterprise, and that administrators will determine later on if they want to keep it.

“We will have to compare,” said Kochis.

The district is also making use of Google Meet, which is expected to provide a larger tiled view of classes in the near future so that teachers could see up to 49 participants onscreen at the same time. On the first day of school, Kochis said, teachers could only see a maximum of 16 students onscreen at one time.

The district is also planning to integrate Jamboard, an interactive white board application that teachers could use for virtual instruction, later this month. With Jamboard, teachers can virtually use a pen, sticky notes, write with their fingers or sync to other Google apps.

“It was introduced to teachers last spring,” said Kochis, who added that it will be integrated with Google Meet in the near future.

Other virtual tools are expected to follow in the coming months, including breakout rooms, conducting meeting attendance, (student) hand-raising and even a Q&A channel for the audience to ask questions without disrupting conversational flow.

Kochis also explained that students cannot enter a virtual classroom in the district without a teacher already present in that classroom. Teachers have the ability to screen and remove individuals from their classrooms, if need be.

“They can report anything on their screens,” said Kochis. “They can (also) have voiceovers and pictures, and post on a YouTube channel.”

She added that the tools being used are universal and provide assistance in all subject areas, and also deliver subject matter remotely.

Assistant superintendent Karen Jones said that Kochis had done “an extraordinary job,” when teachers had the chance to pilot the tech tools last spring for free. They are now able to use those resources this fall in the shift back to full-time virtual learning, which had been used from March to June earlier this year after the coronavirus became widespread.

Board member A.J. Joshi asked about students having access to Google Classroom in other districts, and how Bridgewater-Raritan will prevent unauthorized individuals from joining in.

Kochis responded that individuals cannot enter a meeting without having a specific code, and that the program notifies educators if an attempted connection is coming from out of town. After two unsuccessful tries to access a meeting, that user is subsequently banned.

“We encourage teachers to use Google,” she said, as opposed to programs such as Zoom, which could potentially be hacked.

She also said that students can’t join a meeting or class until teachers “opened the door for them,” and that teachers shouldn’t close Google Meet until all students have exited the virtual classroom.

“No one can access without a teacher there,” she said.

She added that the first day of this new school year had been a “very busy day,” with a lot of questions asked. She explained that teachers wanted to be able to see all their students onscreen at the same time they were teaching them, preferably via a split screen that could be halved between students taking the class and the actual presentation itself.

She said administrators are working on that application.

“The proof is in the pudding,” said interim superintendent Thomas Ficarra of the switch back to virtual learning. “We’ve made great leaps and bounds, and we continue to improve.”