Glori Engel, the assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction in...

Glori Engel, the assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction in Freeport schools, in the high school's Chromebook Support Center. The district has accelerated its tech plans, adding computers and providing 750 students with hot spots so they can work at home, she said. Credit: James Carbone

Long Island educators say the pandemic-era push to provide students with computers and apps for distance learning catapulted schools years ahead in their plans to incorporate technology — and it's changing the way teachers teach and students learn.

Island schools are going all-in on high tech, with teachers saying they are using computer programs such as Google Classroom, I-Ready and Canvas to deliver tests and assignments and to grade papers. Technology has replaced some textbooks, and teachers are using new software programs to assess students’ strengths and weaknesses.

“As much as the pandemic was an awful time period, one silver lining was it pushed us forward to quickly add tech supports,” said Todd Winch, superintendent of the Levittown school district. Before the COVID pandemic, “We had a computer literacy component in the sixth grade. Now it’s embedded in every classroom in every grade.”

Students say many of the textbooks have been replaced with online programs that have provided them more tools to learn and express themselves. Many traditional pen-and-paper assignments are being revamped into online presentations, they say.

"It's optimized my learning," said Jericho High School junior Steven Kalamotousakis, 16, adding that, with fewer textbooks, his backpack is also a lot lighter. 

Kalamotousakis says he takes all his classroom notes on an iPad, and his teachers post assignments on Canvas or Google Classroom.

"Before the pandemic, you were talking about interactive learning, nothing technology-based. After the pandemic, teachers definitely have utilized technology to its fullest," he said.

Teachers say the software programs help them better engage young people, and that they can digitally revamp an assignment to individually cater to low-performing, average and above-average students. Math problems can be altered, for instance, in a way that engages a sports-minded student.

"The majority of the curriculum has gone online," said Kevin Coyne, who teaches sixth grade at West Middle School in Brentwood. "This is where the future lies — technology at our fingertips."

Coyne said students can do an assignment on the Civil War online, and a teacher can push a button to get all the results, and push another button to get a bar graph on the results.

"If everybody gets Question 4 wrong, I know I need to go back and teach it again," he said.

When COVID struck in March 2020, schools across the country were forced to quickly shutter and switch to remote instruction. But many students, especially those in lower-wealth areas, did not have home computers or internet connections.

Communities such as Brentwood, Central Islip and Wyandanch received some donations for broadband and other technology, but some schools had to send schoolwork home in paper packets. Parents said they parked outside public libraries in the evening so their kids could pick up the Wi-Fi signal and do their homework in the car.

Consequently, schools across the country, aided by a massive infusion of federal dollars, scrambled to purchase Chromebooks and internet hot spots, to the point where many Long Island districts say they now provide a computer for every student. 

The large-scale investment in tech had some of its greatest impact in low-income communities of color, where educational disparities can be the most stark, said Minerva Perez, executive director of OLA of Eastern Long Island, a nonprofit that promotes educational, social and economic development.

"I think [the pandemic] created a much deeper awareness of what the inequity does to a child, and the opportunities they miss," said Perez, whose group donated nearly $2 million to school districts, including $900,000 for Chromebooks and hot spots in Riverhead. "It was a lesson learned the hard way."

Classrooms, meanwhile, were retrofitted with more technology — from upgraded smart boards to a boatload of software such as Google Classroom — to accommodate kids learning at home. The educational software programs have stuck around, educators say.

Winch said the pandemic moved Levittown's tech plans five years ahead in a single year. 

Levittown had provided Chromebooks to just high school students before the pandemic. These days, all Levittown students from kindergarten through 12th grade have a school-issued tablet that they take from class to class and home at the end of the day. The pandemic effort increased the number of Chromebooks and computers there from 6,300 to 11,365, Winch said. A dozen or so families also received hot spots, which provide internet access, to use at home at no cost.

Whereas only about a quarter of teachers had used tech-oriented teaching before the outbreak, virtually all have embraced at least some of the district’s 50 digital software tools, he said.

Winch said it's too early to determine the impact on achievement and making up for learning lost during the pandemic.

"How much does tech enhance learning outcomes? It's debatable," he said. But one thing is for sure, he added: "If you don't provide these things, you will fall behind."

The story is much the same across the Island, as COVID drew back the curtain on tech disparities in schools and helped alleviate them, said Bob Vecchio, executive director of the Nassau-Suffolk School Boards Association.

"The funding during the pandemic did a lot to bridge that gap," Vecchio said. "There are still gaps, but not as extensive."

Many Island schools were adding technology before the pandemic. Jericho schools had iPads and Chromebooks on carts that were wheeled into classrooms as needed, said Patrick Fogarty, the district's technology director. Now, the district provides every student with one, he said.

Fogarty said the district has purchased about 2,800 Chromebooks since the pandemic, at a cost of $375 a pop. Sixty or so students also have been provided internet hot spots and internet service at home. The district also upgraded the smart boards in every classroom with webcams and microphones to accommodate distance learning. 

The rapid-fire addition of tech also has brought challenges and concerns, educators say. 

Jericho schools installed GoGuardian in its computer systems, a service that monitors student activity online, filters content, and alerts school officials to illicit searches. 

Having so many additional computers attached to the schools also has raised concerns about the security of centralized systems and the protection of personal information on students and staff, educators say. Students in general don't have access to a district's large, centralized files, educators say.

Beyond that, the distribution of federal money for COVID relief — a total of $190 billion nationally and $500 million to Island schools — is slated to run out next year. Schools will then have to pay for repair and replacement of computers and other tech, as well as maintain contracts with companies that provide apps, hot spots and software programs.

Each Island district is addressing the fiscal cliff in its own way. 

Jericho, which received $1.7 million in federal aid, plans to buy 600 Chromebooks this year, but the money will come from state funds provided in the Smart Schools Investment Plan, Fogarty said. 

In Levittown, $11.8 million in federal pandemic aid came in, but only a fraction was used for tech, Winch said. The district did use $58,000 in federal money to expand the use of I-Ready, an online assessment and support program, Winch said.

"Once we have exhausted funding for new devices through our [state grant], then we will have to absorb these costs into the regular budget," Winch said. "At this time, we do not believe there will be a tax impact to these costs, but there may be a shift in budget priorities and planning."

The tech boom also has created fears that schools, and consequently students, will become over-reliant on these digital bells and whistles, at the expense of traditional face-to-face teaching, said Coyne, the Brentwood teacher and head of its teachers union.

Coyne is particularly concerned with students using artificial intelligence apps such as ChatGPT, which can produce an original, grade-specific essay in seconds from a single written prompt. 

"I worry that kids are not doing the research, that there's a lack of investment, reading and discovery," Coyne said.

For all the futuristic promise in tech, Island educators say it cannot match or replace the skills and presence of a good teacher.

"We have to stay true to what we know. It's just a digital tool, not necessarily the end-all, be-all," said Glori Engel, Freeport's assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction.

Freeport, which has numerous low-income students, accelerated its tech plans, adding computers and providing 750 students with hot spots so they can work at home, she said.

But it's wrong to think, Engel added, that simply adding more technology will magically bridge the achievement gaps between students. Educators say these gaps occur for many reasons, including poverty, food insecurity, language challenges and the family moving around.

West Hempstead Superintendent Dan Rehman said he is already seeing tech help student performance. Grades are rising on standardized tests for grades 3-8, he said.

"We're happy with that," Rehman said, adding that he attributes the improvement in part to tech, but more importantly that "kids are back in school" where they feel comfortable.

West Hempstead received about $4 million in federal aid and used a small portion to buy about 400 Chromebooks, Rehman said.

"We were close to having one Chromebook for each student [before the pandemic]," he said. "Now we have enough for each student."

The presence of technology continues to grow in education.

New York State education officials say they plan to shift standardized tests in English, math and science to computer-based testing for all students grades 5-8 next spring.

President Joe Biden on Monday said his administration will create resources to help teachers adopt educational tools that rely on artificial intelligence. Also, the U.S. Department of Commerce will establish ways that flag content generated by artificial intelligence, which could help educators spot students' work that uses AI to plagiarize.

In many Island schools, the tech explosion is still bursting. 

Freeport is finishing installation of a television studio in the high school, and students recently held their first meeting to start a school-oriented podcast, district tech coach Nick Spiegler said.

Freeport High School junior Brian Truskolaski took photos and video of the school's recent homecoming festival. He posted the photos and video to social media and is working with Spiegler to craft them into a video.

Truskolaski, who hopes to become a "content creator," also looks forward to working on the podcast, which will be called "The Real Spill."

"It will focus on what high school students find important about growing up in Freeport," he said.

Parents say they see children embracing new technology.

Perched on the couch in his Miller Place home, third-grader Izzy King quickly flicks his fingers around the keyboard and mousepad of his laptop. He's playing a math game that has him stacking rectangle pieces on top of one another on the screen, while counting the pieces in the pile.

His mother, Nicole Galante, smiles and says Izzy likes these educational computer games as much as those on his Nintendo.

"Technology has really energized his learning," she says. "He loves to play on his computer and do math games. And he really puts more emphasis on the game than the math, but at the same time, he's learning about [numbers]."

Long Island educators say the pandemic-era push to provide students with computers and apps for distance learning catapulted schools years ahead in their plans to incorporate technology — and it's changing the way teachers teach and students learn.

Island schools are going all-in on high tech, with teachers saying they are using computer programs such as Google Classroom, I-Ready and Canvas to deliver tests and assignments and to grade papers. Technology has replaced some textbooks, and teachers are using new software programs to assess students’ strengths and weaknesses.

“As much as the pandemic was an awful time period, one silver lining was it pushed us forward to quickly add tech supports,” said Todd Winch, superintendent of the Levittown school district. Before the COVID pandemic, “We had a computer literacy component in the sixth grade. Now it’s embedded in every classroom in every grade.”

Students say many of the textbooks have been replaced with online programs that have provided them more tools to learn and express themselves. Many traditional pen-and-paper assignments are being revamped into online presentations, they say.

WHAT TO KNOW

  • Educators say the pandemic push to provide students with computers and apps for distance learning catapulted schools years ahead in their plans to incorporate technology — and it's changing the ways teachers teach and students learn.
  • Teachers say they are using more computer programs, such as Google Classroom, I-Ready and Canvas, to deliver tests and assignments, grade papers and assess students. 
  • Students say educational tech has replaced many textbooks with online programs and provided them more tools to learn and express themselves.

"It's optimized my learning," said Jericho High School junior Steven Kalamotousakis, 16, adding that, with fewer textbooks, his backpack is also a lot lighter. 

Kalamotousakis says he takes all his classroom notes on an iPad, and his teachers post assignments on Canvas or Google Classroom.

"Before the pandemic, you were talking about interactive learning, nothing technology-based. After the pandemic, teachers definitely have utilized technology to its fullest," he said.

Teachers say the software programs help them better engage young people, and that they can digitally revamp an assignment to individually cater to low-performing, average and above-average students. Math problems can be altered, for instance, in a way that engages a sports-minded student.

"The majority of the curriculum has gone online," said Kevin Coyne, who teaches sixth grade at West Middle School in Brentwood. "This is where the future lies — technology at our fingertips."

Coyne said students can do an assignment on the Civil War online, and a teacher can push a button to get all the results, and push another button to get a bar graph on the results.

"If everybody gets Question 4 wrong, I know I need to go back and teach it again," he said.

When COVID struck in March 2020, schools across the country were forced to quickly shutter and switch to remote instruction. But many students, especially those in lower-wealth areas, did not have home computers or internet connections.

Communities such as Brentwood, Central Islip and Wyandanch received some donations for broadband and other technology, but some schools had to send schoolwork home in paper packets. Parents said they parked outside public libraries in the evening so their kids could pick up the Wi-Fi signal and do their homework in the car.

Consequently, schools across the country, aided by a massive infusion of federal dollars, scrambled to purchase Chromebooks and internet hot spots, to the point where many Long Island districts say they now provide a computer for every student. 

The large-scale investment in tech had some of its greatest impact in low-income communities of color, where educational disparities can be the most stark, said Minerva Perez, executive director of OLA of Eastern Long Island, a nonprofit that promotes educational, social and economic development.

"I think [the pandemic] created a much deeper awareness of what the inequity does to a child, and the opportunities they miss," said Perez, whose group donated nearly $2 million to school districts, including $900,000 for Chromebooks and hot spots in Riverhead. "It was a lesson learned the hard way."

Classrooms, meanwhile, were retrofitted with more technology — from upgraded smart boards to a boatload of software such as Google Classroom — to accommodate kids learning at home. The educational software programs have stuck around, educators say.

Winch said the pandemic moved Levittown's tech plans five years ahead in a single year. 

Levittown had provided Chromebooks to just high school students before the pandemic. These days, all Levittown students from kindergarten through 12th grade have a school-issued tablet that they take from class to class and home at the end of the day. The pandemic effort increased the number of Chromebooks and computers there from 6,300 to 11,365, Winch said. A dozen or so families also received hot spots, which provide internet access, to use at home at no cost.

Whereas only about a quarter of teachers had used tech-oriented teaching before the outbreak, virtually all have embraced at least some of the district’s 50 digital software tools, he said.

Winch said it's too early to determine the impact on achievement and making up for learning lost during the pandemic.

"How much does tech enhance learning outcomes? It's debatable," he said. But one thing is for sure, he added: "If you don't provide these things, you will fall behind."

COVID reveals tech gap

The story is much the same across the Island, as COVID drew back the curtain on tech disparities in schools and helped alleviate them, said Bob Vecchio, executive director of the Nassau-Suffolk School Boards Association.

"The funding during the pandemic did a lot to bridge that gap," Vecchio said. "There are still gaps, but not as extensive."

Many Island schools were adding technology before the pandemic. Jericho schools had iPads and Chromebooks on carts that were wheeled into classrooms as needed, said Patrick Fogarty, the district's technology director. Now, the district provides every student with one, he said.

Fogarty said the district has purchased about 2,800 Chromebooks since the pandemic, at a cost of $375 a pop. Sixty or so students also have been provided internet hot spots and internet service at home. The district also upgraded the smart boards in every classroom with webcams and microphones to accommodate distance learning. 

English teacher Suzanne Valenza helps students, from left, Sherry Wang, Sophia Liu and Emma...

English teacher Suzanne Valenza helps students, from left, Sherry Wang, Sophia Liu and Emma Tanner in a creative writing class at Jericho High School. Credit: Linda Rosier

The rapid-fire addition of tech also has brought challenges and concerns, educators say. 

Jericho schools installed GoGuardian in its computer systems, a service that monitors student activity online, filters content, and alerts school officials to illicit searches. 

Having so many additional computers attached to the schools also has raised concerns about the security of centralized systems and the protection of personal information on students and staff, educators say. Students in general don't have access to a district's large, centralized files, educators say.

Beyond that, the distribution of federal money for COVID relief — a total of $190 billion nationally and $500 million to Island schools — is slated to run out next year. Schools will then have to pay for repair and replacement of computers and other tech, as well as maintain contracts with companies that provide apps, hot spots and software programs.

Each Island district is addressing the fiscal cliff in its own way. 

Jericho, which received $1.7 million in federal aid, plans to buy 600 Chromebooks this year, but the money will come from state funds provided in the Smart Schools Investment Plan, Fogarty said. 

In Levittown, $11.8 million in federal pandemic aid came in, but only a fraction was used for tech, Winch said. The district did use $58,000 in federal money to expand the use of I-Ready, an online assessment and support program, Winch said.

"Once we have exhausted funding for new devices through our [state grant], then we will have to absorb these costs into the regular budget," Winch said. "At this time, we do not believe there will be a tax impact to these costs, but there may be a shift in budget priorities and planning."

Concerns with tech overreliance

The tech boom also has created fears that schools, and consequently students, will become over-reliant on these digital bells and whistles, at the expense of traditional face-to-face teaching, said Coyne, the Brentwood teacher and head of its teachers union.

Coyne is particularly concerned with students using artificial intelligence apps such as ChatGPT, which can produce an original, grade-specific essay in seconds from a single written prompt. 

"I worry that kids are not doing the research, that there's a lack of investment, reading and discovery," Coyne said.

For all the futuristic promise in tech, Island educators say it cannot match or replace the skills and presence of a good teacher.

"We have to stay true to what we know. It's just a digital tool, not necessarily the end-all, be-all," said Glori Engel, Freeport's assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction.

Freeport, which has numerous low-income students, accelerated its tech plans, adding computers and providing 750 students with hot spots so they can work at home, she said.

But it's wrong to think, Engel added, that simply adding more technology will magically bridge the achievement gaps between students. Educators say these gaps occur for many reasons, including poverty, food insecurity, language challenges and the family moving around.

West Hempstead Superintendent Dan Rehman said he is already seeing tech help student performance. Grades are rising on standardized tests for grades 3-8, he said.

"We're happy with that," Rehman said, adding that he attributes the improvement in part to tech, but more importantly that "kids are back in school" where they feel comfortable.

West Hempstead received about $4 million in federal aid and used a small portion to buy about 400 Chromebooks, Rehman said.

"We were close to having one Chromebook for each student [before the pandemic]," he said. "Now we have enough for each student."

The presence of technology continues to grow in education.

New York State education officials say they plan to shift standardized tests in English, math and science to computer-based testing for all students grades 5-8 next spring.

President Joe Biden on Monday said his administration will create resources to help teachers adopt educational tools that rely on artificial intelligence. Also, the U.S. Department of Commerce will establish ways that flag content generated by artificial intelligence, which could help educators spot students' work that uses AI to plagiarize.

Embracing the tech

In many Island schools, the tech explosion is still bursting. 

Freeport is finishing installation of a television studio in the high school, and students recently held their first meeting to start a school-oriented podcast, district tech coach Nick Spiegler said.

Freeport High School junior Brian Truskolaski took photos and video of the school's recent homecoming festival. He posted the photos and video to social media and is working with Spiegler to craft them into a video.

Truskolaski, who hopes to become a "content creator," also looks forward to working on the podcast, which will be called "The Real Spill."

"It will focus on what high school students find important about growing up in Freeport," he said.

Izzy King plays learning games on his computer as his mom,...

Izzy King plays learning games on his computer as his mom, Nicole Galante, watches. Credit: Morgan Campbell

Parents say they see children embracing new technology.

Perched on the couch in his Miller Place home, third-grader Izzy King quickly flicks his fingers around the keyboard and mousepad of his laptop. He's playing a math game that has him stacking rectangle pieces on top of one another on the screen, while counting the pieces in the pile.

His mother, Nicole Galante, smiles and says Izzy likes these educational computer games as much as those on his Nintendo.

"Technology has really energized his learning," she says. "He loves to play on his computer and do math games. And he really puts more emphasis on the game than the math, but at the same time, he's learning about [numbers]."

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