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Tech Tools Making a Difference in Stanislaus County Schools

Teachers and students weigh in on interactive workouts, quality audio, 24/7 online tutoring, virtual field trips and other tools that have helped them keep up with studies over the course of remote instruction.

Lucas Fernandez is working a hybrid model where he works at home part of the time and at the office other times. His wife Deicy is also working from home and the two do so while watching their children, Vienna, 7 and Lucas Jr., 2, at their La Mesa apartment. (K.C. Alfred/San Diego Union-Tribune/TNS)
(TNS) — Even as school districts in Stanislaus County work to increase in-person learning time for primary grade students and possibly return junior high and high school kids to campuses in mid-March, distance learning remains a mainstay of education during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Being thrust nearly a year ago into this unprecedented environment has led teachers, administrators and support staff to explore and employ an array of trainings and tools and to walk a line between what's beneficial and what becomes a burden.

Here's a snapshot of some of the tech being used in local school districts. Note: A tool discussed by a district may be in use in other districts as well.

Churning and chilling in Patterson

A PE curriculum that features an online interactive HIIT (high-intensity interval training) workout has been a hit among students, according to the Patterson Joint Unified School District.

Creekside Middle School teacher Steve Cardoso and a handful of colleagues in other districts developed the program, which includes a daily learning objective and related short-answer or multiple-choice question.

The physical part of the class lets students choose from an easy, medium or more challenging workout.

"This is the piece that's been very innovative for us," Cardoso said. "I have stopwatches attached to the slides, as well as gifs of the exercises for students to follow." Students are required to have their cameras on during the physical activity portion of class, which consists of the warm-up and HIIT workout, each about 15 minutes.

Spending so much time cooped up at home, the teacher said, students now more than ever need to move. The HIIT workout, originated by a mentor teacher of Cardoso's in Elk Grove, requires a space of only about 8 by 8 feet and no exercise equipment.

To watch Cardoso's back-to-school night online presentation on the PE program, go to

Speaking about his classes only, he said about 98 percent of the students attending class participate in the workouts. "I mean they're getting after it! It's amazing."

On the more chill side of things, the Patterson district has created a virtual calming room. The site offers ways for students and families to "manage stressful moments."

It includes videos on mindfulness activities like breathing exercises, yoga and meditation; games and art activities; nature videos such as "Big Sur from Above," "Redwood National Park Hike" and "Ocean Beach Near the Golden Gate Bridge"; and animal camera footage from Monterey Bay Aquarium and other sources.

Coming in loud and clear in Ceres

Ceres Unified is using FrontRow Juno, an audio system that enhances sound and enables wireless streaming of instructional content. Its microphone allows elementary students in hybrid classrooms to more clearly hear their teachers even though everyone in the class is wearing masks, district spokeswoman Beth Parker Jimenez said. Juno also lets teachers incorporate video clips, music, and other sound effects into their lessons.

Via email, sixth-grade Caswell Elementary teacher Patricia Correia said, "This is a total game changer for student engagement. A great example is when teaching English lessons, sometimes it's hard to express the author's tones and expressions when you have to speak loud enough for everyone to hear it. I love how ... it works seamlessly with my Google Slides closed captioning so my students can also read what I am saying on the screen to help my English language learners as well."

An innovative practice specific to secondary students, Jimenez said, is the use of virtual desktops in Amazon Web Services for students to access Adobe suite programs like Adobe AfterEffects, Adobe Illustrator and Adobe Photoshop.

"This allows them to access program they would normally use on more powerful computers in the classroom from their Chromebooks," she said, sharing information from the district's IT director. "This has been a lifesaver for 12 teachers and nearly 500 students who use these programs. The great thing about this, too, is that students will be able to continue to access this resource after distance learning is over to extend their work on assignments outside of the classroom."

Tutoring in Turlock, day or night

Turlock Unified implemented to offer live, expert tutors to middle school and junior high students through an online platform available 24/7, said Marshall Beyer, the district's coordinator of educational technology.

The district also provides Lexia and Learning A-Z, tools students can use to develop critical reading and language skills, Beyer said. And Zearn, he said, is an an online platform that ties directly into TUSD's adopted curriculum, Eureka Math, to support the skills and strategies students are learning in their core curriculum.

Teachers have been provided a second monitor with a built-in webcam that "provides the teacher the flexibility to manage/view students online through video conferencing software on one screen and share items from their computer/document camera with their students on the other," Beyer said in an email.

Additionally, he said, the district is receiving Logitech camera systems, which will be used to increase opportunities to engage students with social-emotional and academic learning.

Field trips without leaving home

The Stanislaus County Office of Education has created four virtual field trips for teachers and their classrooms. They are of Resendiz Fruit Barn, Faith Ranch, the Turlock Wastewater Treatment Plant and Modesto Junk Co.

"Each virtual field trip includes a video visit to the site and a lesson choice board featuring standards-aligned lessons," SCOE spokeswoman Judy Boring said in an email. "Each lesson integrates the field trip site alongside one of the following subjects: history, social science, English language arts, science/STEM, math, and visual art."

The field trip page is at

Boring also noted that SCOE has partnered with the Stanislaus Union School District since 2018 on the Professional Development for Art Educators grant. The grant provides 40 hours of professional development in arts integration to elementary teachers. They also get kits of art materials to teach the lessons to the students.

"With COVID, we had to pivot and offered all of our PD hours virtually this year," Boring said. "And instead of teachers getting a kit of supplies, we designed a take-home kit for each participating student. The teachers coordinated it so the students were able to pick up the kits so they could create the artwork at home as part of distance learning.

"I'm really proud of how seamlessly we were able to pivot to offer this grant work to align with the needs of distance learning."

Hughson finds Owls a wise investment

Hughson Unified is excited about a tool that provides a more robust classroom link.

Owl is a video conferencing technology. It has a camera that tracks in any direction the person speaking in a classroom, according to a news release from the district. When teachers move away from their computer stations, the students watching at home on Zoom still can see and hear what is happening on a split-screen view.

The Owl is about 2 feet tall and cylindrical, with camera eyes about where the bird's eyes would be. "With the Owl, I am able to leave my computer and still conduct class," Gary Grant, a seventh- and eighth-grade history teacher at Ross Middle School, said in the news release. "I am able to stand in the front of the room or walk around and the camera will still be focused on me. Before, if I left my computer/webcam, the students would not be able to view what I was doing."

Hughson ordered 80 Owls — one for each K-12 classroom — at $900 each. The total cost of $72,000 was paid for through COVID relief funds that the district received from the state and federal governments.

Even after COVID vaccines have been administered, all students are back in class and campus life returns to normal sometime in the 2021-22 school year, the district's investment in the Owls will still be a wise one, Assistant Superintendent Carrie Duckart said in the news release.

Two groups of students — those with chronic illnesses, whose teachers have to go to their homes, and those on long-term independent study — both will be easier to reach with Owls, she said.

Modesto aims for tech 'sweet spot'

In Modesto City Schools, the effort has been to ensure tech and training have gone hand in hand, officials said.

As the district worked to roll out its TK-6 hybrid learning model of concurrent teaching to student cohorts in classrooms and at home, it was important to identify what tools — and only what tools — needed to be in place, said Mike Rich, senior director in the curriculum, instruction and professional development division.

"We don't want to overwhelm the teachers with so much that then they're worried about the technology" rather than focusing on instruction, he said. They were looking for "that sweet spot, if you will," before a benefit becomes a burden.

The district looked at video tools including Owl and Swivl, but teachers who tested the tracking technology found managing multiple devices a bit cumbersome, Rich said.

MCS ended up sticking with Surface Pro detachable laptops. "They have cameras right on them. They're very portable," Rich said. "The teachers can pick them up, they can walk around the classroom, they can go back to their workstation, plug it in. ..."

Teachers also are using Bluetooth headsets with excellent microphones that pick up exchanges between teachers and students in the classroom. "We want the experience at home or in class to be as similar as possible," Rich said. Whether a teacher asks something of a student in the classroom group or the home group, all students are able to hear the answer, he said. "It really mimics what they were used to in a normal classroom setting."

To ensure teachers were up to speed on using the technology they needed, they received training that included a series of videos in which peers model use of various tools and techniques, said Matthew Ketchum, district director of educational technology.

"Our training team took special care to work with teachers and meet them at whatever technological level they were comfortable with, while also helping them grow their skills," district spokeswoman Krista Noonan said.

(c)2021 The Modesto Bee (Modesto, Calif.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.