WARREN, NJ - If there is ever a dominant common characteristic enabling the students, faculty, administration, even parents to get the most educational value out of the experience of living during the time of the 2020 Covid-19 Pandemic, it is a newfound appreciation for all the essential workers, who are far too often taken for granted. 

Introducing the Watchung Hills Regional High School Distance Learning Tech Squad – The WHRHS IT Department. Since well before, but certainly doubly so since, the start of the 2019-2020 School Year distance learning experience on March 16, they have been on-the-job, supporting students and teachers as the IT facilitators during the whole process.

The Warrior Distance Learning Tech Squad includes: IT Director Anthony Meluso, IT Manager Andy Bohl, Technicians Luis Nazario, Luis Kourany and Kevin Teeter, and Student Information Systems Manager Chris Beckert.

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The Task and The Challenges

Meluso laid out the broad responsibilities for Tech Support during the distance learning experience.

“Planning started two weeks before the governor made the announcement to close school,” Meluso said. “IT was tasked with assessing available hardware and software for immediate use during the health-related closure.”

Meluso continued, “9th, 10th and 11th graders have 1:1 Chromebooks. For 12th graders, the students used their own devices. Surveys were conducted identifying students without a device and students without Internet at home.  On the Friday before closing, IT distributed over 50 loaner Chromebooks to seniors.  We also have seven students without the Internet at home.  We provided those students with Verizon Hotspots.”

He continued, “Any technology hardware repairs or requests for staff and students are processed weekly.  Drop off and pick up windows are between 10 a.m. and 11 a.m. each day through the Building and Grounds offices. Key questions were:  What are the instructional expectations of teachers and students during the closure? What would assessments for performance-based classes look like?  What about access to supplemental education resources?  Even, how will attendance be taken?”

Meluso said, “The role of Google Classroom during distance learning is tremendously important.  Announcements, discussion, assessments, and grading are processed here. It’s the hub that is needed to make communication flow without physically being in a classroom. Both teachers and students are already very familiar with all the possibilities of Google Classroom from prior professional development and the school’s focus to make it part of the daily learning stream.”

“The lack of a voice or the absence of seeing their peers and teacher presented the need to look towards live meetings,” Meluso said.   “IT was tasked to review and determine which video conferencing technology would best fit the educational needs. While Google Meet was already integrated into G Suite, it lacked the controls needed for teachers to conduct a distraction-free lesson.  It was hard to ignore the global popularity of Zoom during the first few weeks of remote learning. However, the privacy and security concerns discovered in Zoom’s software did give us pause.  Zoom addressed most of these issues, such as turning on waiting rooms and meeting passwords by default.  A small group of teachers piloted lessons via Zoom, after IT conducted remote professional development.  Feedback was very positive with students overwhelmingly excited to see their friends and teachers again.” 

Question and Answer With The IT Director

Question: Can you give a short list of what services you provide for students and teachers, something like helping with connectivity issues, pointers on how to use various features of their computers, and interface issues that may arise from their individual computers, etc.

Meluso: We provide a full suite of technology services to both students and teachers. Common issues we assist with are malfunctioning cameras, connectivity issues to their home network, access to files located on the school network, deploying software and security patches.  We also assist staff with educational technology applications and services, creating tutorials and guides.

Q: Do you help them untangle nagging computer issues and such when they get stuck?

Meluso: We use remote assistance software to connect to teachers’ devices and walk them through their issues. We close around 10 tickets a day plus a few more Email requests.  Some issues require further research and testing. We are actively planning for the next school year and expanding and improving our school network infrastructure from home.

Q: Are most of the classes up and running smoothly? Did it take a little while to iron out some kinks?

Meluso: The staff at Watchung Hills are professional educators and quickly handled the transition from in-class learning to distance learning. They prepared serval weeks of lessons ahead of the school closure. Initially, there were some issues with recording their lessons, sharing their screens, and access to files and other resources. The IT team quickly addressed these and worked on building tutorials to share with the faculty and staff.

Q: Were there various levels of computer ability among teachers and students?  Did it help that these teachers and their students already had had some time working together, either from September for year-long courses, or since January on second semester courses. Could students and teachers continue exchanging notes and assignments as they had already been doing?

Meluso: All teachers had professional development on using Google G Suite and other supplemental educational technology services and software. However, with the move to distance learning this would be put to the test. Some staff just needed a refresher and most did not skip a beat with the way they communicate, post assignments, and engage students digitally.

Q: Were there some students who were particularly helpful to you, including to support the teachers and students. For instance, could you use the help of the kids who organized the HillsHacksHackathon, the members of the Computer Club, and students in Computer Science classes? Likewise are there teachers who have been helpful in this respect, too?

Meluso: There were lead teachers who are more technology-integrated and were able to share what was working and what was not with fellow department members.  Department meetings, committee meetings, and district leadership team meetings continue to meet at least once a week to share ideas, problems, and solutions.

Q. Did the type of classes pose different challenges, such as the intense science classes with Lab work, the math classes with lots of computation, the English, History and Social Science classes with lots of reading and writing, and the arts classes with the need for photo and graphic attachments?

Meluso: Yes and no. Teachers quickly adapted to going digitally but still maintaining physicality that is required in some classes. Math teachers had students take photos of their work to submit for a grade, music students were asked to record themselves playing their instruments, physical education teachers led live classes of workouts. English courses needed texts that were located at the school. After some research, we were able to purchase the books via Barnes & Noble and deploy the Nook app to student Google Chromebooks.  Teachers then shared the access code with their students and quickly continued the curriculum.

Q: Has there been requests to post group singing exhibitions, or group art displays, What about exhibiting the art pieces, and photos or choral?

Meluso: There has been some sharing of student performances. For instance, Matilda the Musical was canceled due to the health-related closure, however our principal shared with the entire school videos from a select number of students.  Talks are also underway of digitally recognizing student achievement such as the National Art Honor Society, via a presentation on the school website.

The Warrior Distance Learning Tech Squad

The intrepid Warrior Distance Learning Teach Squad are: WHRHS Director of Technology Anthony Meluso.  He is a agraduate of Hudson Catholic High School, Jersey City, who went on to obtain a degree in information systems from Pace University, New York City. Meluso entered the education sector as a technician. He said he quickly fell in love with the idea of helping both students and teachers learn to integrate technology in the classroom. 

“After completing the alternate route program, I taught business and technology courses while obtaining a master’s in education supervision and administration at St. Peter’s University, Jersey City,” he said.  “I worked as a teacher and network and computer system’s administrator for 10 years at Passaic Valley Regional High School, Little Falls, before taking on the Director of Technology role at Watchung Hills this past December.”

Other members of the team are: The It Manager Andy Bohl, who is a graduate of South Plainfield High School and the Anthem Institute, formerly known as Chubb, North Brunswick. At Anthem, he concentrated in Computer Networking and Security, finishing in 2010. He has been WHRHS IT Manager since the 2014-2015 school year.’

Others on the team are: Technician Luis Nazario, who is a graduate of Perth Amboy High School, and Thomas Edison University, Trenton. He has studied Aviation Flight Technology, and worked for 10 years in the aviation industry. At WHRHS, he has worked with Chrome Books, smart boards, and repairs, while continuing to learn new computer languages.

Technician Luis Kourany is a graduate of John P. Stevens High School, Edison Township. He holds an associate’s degree from Middlesex County College, Edison. He said that at a young age, his father taught him how to build a computer and that started a lifelong fascination with computers. Before WHRHS, he worked at Old Bridge Public School District

Technician Kevin Teeter is a graduate of South Brunswick High School and Middlesex County College. He said he started building computers when he was 10-years-old. He is certified in several computer languages. 

Rounding out the team is WHRHS Student Information Systems Manager Chris Beckert. She holds an Undergraduate degree in Forensic Studies from Indiana University, Bloomington, Ind., and graduate credits toward an MBA in Finance from Seton Hall University, South Orange. Beckert has 15 years of experience in management at AT&T, and 18 years of experience at WHRHS in Guidance and Information Technology, including 10 years as Student Information System Manager.