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Nebraska Parochial Schools: COVID-Era Tech Is Here to Stay

Video cameras, Zoom licenses and other purchases that came in handy for snow days became essential during COVID lockdowns, and now schools such as Lincoln Lutheran intend to keep them for conferences and other purposes.

(TNS) — When Lincoln Lutheran School students booted up their computers and logged on to Zoom to learn from home last February, it wasn’t for COVID-19 reasons.

An arctic cold snap in Nebraska had sent temperatures plummeting to dangerous levels, forcing a second straight snow day for schools across the city.

But not at Lincoln Lutheran.

The parochial school in northeast Lincoln for students in grades 6-12 continued classes as normal that day, with teachers relying on the technology they used during the pandemic to reach students — like nifty Swivl webcams, which mimic in-person learning, and Zoom.

Staff had come to a realization of sorts: Technology that helped keep the school afloat in the pandemic is here to stay.

“We’ve invested pretty heavily in this technology, and we’re going to continue to keep it,” said principal Matt Heibel.

It’s an investment private schools across Lincoln and Nebraska are making, too, as the pandemic has shown that technology has become a more integral part of the classroom than ever before.

To its credit, Lincoln Lutheran has become somewhat of a leader in that regard. In early 2020, when news about a mysterious pneumonia-causing disease came from sister schools in Asia, Lloyd Sommerer, the school’s technology coordinator, knew they had to act.

“Lloyd came in one morning and said, ‘We have to talk,’” Heibel said. “We saw that this was something that was going to happen.”

So the school purchased Zoom licenses and ordered webcams, which sat unopened in boxes, staff unclear whether they'd even need them. But it soon became clear the need was there when schools eventually closed in March 2020 as COVID-19 crept into Nebraska.

That equipment isn’t going back into a box anytime soon.

In addition to webcams, big-screen TVs were installed in classrooms in the fall, projecting the faces of students learning remotely — whether because they opted to be full-time virtual learners, were quarantined because of COVID-19 or were gone for another reason.

“We had a kid go on a hockey tournament Zoom in from his phone in his car,” Heibel said.

The school’s one-to-one device program, in which students bring their own tablets or laptops to class, had already been in use for years, making the transition even more seamless.

“Technology has been embedded in what we do here for a while now,” he said.

And while Heibel doesn’t foresee as great a need for remote learning for pandemic reasons this fall, he said the school will continue to allow students and teachers to remote in if they’re sick or absent for some other reason.

And snow days will be a thing of the past — or almost. If there is a multiple-day closure due to weather at LPS, Lincoln Lutheran will only close for the first day.

“The big overall picture is be flexible,” Heibel said.

In the Diocese of Lincoln, which covers the southern half of the state, officials are in the early stages of rolling out a one-to-one tablet program at its five high schools, including Pius X. It plans to use about $1.5 million in state virus relief money earmarked to bridge schools’ technology gaps to pay for the devices, but a timeline to roll it out is not yet known.

One-to-one plans, like Lincoln Public Schools’ Chromebook initiative, have never really been a part of the diocese’s philosophy, said the Rev. Matthew Zimmer, director of education technology. But the pandemic changed that, with textbook publishers indicating they would be going to digital-only editions in the future sooner than believed because of the pandemic.

Instead of a 5- to 10-year timeline to go digital, publishers are now eyeing a two- to five-year time frame, Zimmer said.

“It got sped up to the point that we said, ‘We have to do it,’” Zimmer said about rolling out a one-to-one program. “The pandemic bumped that timeline up.”

But it’s not all a race to beat the clock when it comes to school technology.

The pandemic also opened up doors for diocesan schools to be even more connected, Zimmer said. Teachers and administrators from across the state, for example, are able to meet virtually via Microsoft Teams instead of having to drive long distances for monthly conferences. And in rural areas, students will be able to remote into classes, a practice already in place before COVID-19 but needed more than ever because of teacher shortages.

“We are a very spread-out diocese. You’re talking about Falls City to McCook,” he said. “(Technology) has really brought a connection to the schools that didn’t exist before.”

Lincoln Christian, a K-12 parochial school in southeast Lincoln, instituted a one-to-one Chromebook program for its elementary and junior high students during the pandemic and made devices available to its high schoolers, said Superintendent Zach Kassebaum. The school also bumped up internet speeds and bolstered its firewall, all as a response to growing technological needs.

This fall, however, the focus will be on face-to-face learning unless extenuating circumstances require a student to remote in, Kassebaum said.

“We have clearly seen that face-to-face learning (is) socially, emotionally, and intellectually best for elementary-, junior high- and high school-aged children,” he said.

At Parkview Christian, the pandemic meant a big boost to technology in the classroom. Last summer, Sandhills Global partnered with the school to provide 70 Chromebooks for students, while also bolstering internet access to high school students and upgrading the school's projectors and hard drives.

Like Lincoln Christian, Parkview Christian will continue to lean on daily, in-person interaction rather than remote learning this coming school year. Virtual options, however, will still be available if a student or family members have health concerns, a schools spokesperson said.

That seems to be the central theme for Lincoln’s parochial schools going forward: Even with a greater technological presence in schools, make in-person learning a priority.

“Remote learning was a necessary evil,” the Diocese of Lincoln’s Zimmer said. “It’s definitely not as effective as in-person class.”

©2021 Lincoln Journal Star, Neb. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.