On August 17, 2020, the first morning of hybrid learning at Onslow County Schools, Erin Holland, a Digital Learning and Teaching Services facilitator at the school district, was prepared for a torrent of questions and issues. “In the wake of COVID-19, my colleagues and I spent the summer training teachers in the school district in a hybrid learning environment.” Rather than being inundated with requests for help, Holland’s experience was quite the opposite. “On the first day of school, I walked past classroom after classroom of teachers using Microsoft Teams to host their hybrid learning classes without a hitch.”
“I love all the accessibility features in Microsoft 365 and especially Teams. Immersive Reader and Translate are huge for us and help us support our Exceptional Children and English Language Learners.”
Stephen Taylor: Director of Digital Learning and Teaching Services, Onslow County Schools
Onslow County Schools, a district in North Carolina with 27,000 students ranging from kindergarten to grade twelve, had embraced Teams as its learning management tool for years before COVID-19 sent students and teachers home. “If you want your students to communicate, collaborate, create, and think critically, Teams, combined with the entire Microsoft 365 suite, is a powerful tool to help every learner do just that,” says Stephen Taylor, Director of Digital Learning and Teaching Services at Onslow County Schools. “Also, it was important for us to know that Teams is an extremely secure platform. We have to be aware of CIPA and COPPA compliance, and Microsoft helps give us peace of mind that we’re meeting those regulations.”
Because the district had already successfully implemented Teams, it wasn’t difficult to begin using it as a remote learning platform. Holland and her colleague Christy Torres were among the 20 Digital Learning and Teaching Services technology facilitators at Onslow County School District who stepped in to provide video conferencing instruction. Teams meetings proved intuitive to use, and teachers quickly embraced it as remote learning platform. “Many counties closed for a couple of weeks, but everyone at Onslow County Schools grades three to twelve was doing live Teams calls and keeping up with classes after only one day of transition,” says Taylor.
After completing the 2019–2020 school year, Onslow County Schools worked through the summer to prepare for school openings on August 17. This time, however, the district opted for a hybrid teaching mode with students spending part of the week learning at home and part of the week in school. “We wanted to keep the focus on instruction,” says Holland. “With Teams, teachers can provide direct instruction to both groups of students synchronously, and they can monitor student progress every day. That element of consistency was incredibly important.”
In the months before schools opened for the 2020–2021 school year, Holland, Taylor, Torres, and their other team members, Jason Laurence, Angie Conklin, Gretchen Robinson, and Sachelle Dorencamp went on a “road show,” highlighting how hybrid learning in Teams could work. “The first principal who watched our hybrid learning demonstration looked at us when we were done and said, ‘I feel like I can breathe now.’ That was when we knew it was going to work,” says Holland.
Today, teachers across the district use Teams on their Windows 10 laptops for video calls with at-home students and a SMART Board or projector for writing notes or demonstrating concepts. Using the dual-screen capability in Teams, teachers can share the SMART Board with students at home, while in-person students participate in the class from a safe distance. The teacher can also use the multiwindow capability to see students at home, who use the raise hand feature or the meeting chat to contribute to discussions.
“That’s the best part of Teams for me,” says Holland. “It’s great to see a teacher talking to their class and then hear a voice from an at-home student chime in and contribute. That was a big focus for us, making sure students didn’t lose emotional and social connections to their peers just because they were joining a class from home.”
Teachers can use breakout rooms to pair in-person and online learners together for projects. “Elementary school teachers in particular enjoy using Together mode to make sure that younger students can see their friends and participate in classroom learning together,” says Taylor. “Teachers also find the Teams assignment feature extremely helpful. When they assign work, they can provide resources and monitor timelines right from the app.”
And, with Education Insights, an analytics tool in Teams for understanding students’ participation, teachers gain insights that help them make sure all students are learning and staying engaged. “Insights lets you quickly see who is engaged and who isn’t,” says Taylor. “It always helps when you’re talking to students or parents about participation to have a dashboard to help visualize and explain.”
Taylor and his colleagues are excited about new Teams functionality such as the spotlight feature, which allows teachers to feature an individual participant’s video for everyone to see, no matter who is speaking. Accessibility tools in Teams like Immersive Reader and Translate are also gaining traction across the school district. “I love all the accessibility features in Microsoft 365 and especially Teams,” says T
Teams is also popular among educators at Onslow County Schools who use the platform to build a connected community with their colleagues. Today, Teams is the go-to platform for principals’ meetings in all 39 Onslow County educational facilities, and most schools hold regular virtual check-ins with teachers to share best practices. After collecting feedback from teachers on their experiences using Teams during COVID-19, Taylor and his team found that 85 percent said they felt well connected.
Teams is popular with teachers and students because it’s easy to learn. This is important for Onslow County Schools because the district is near one of the largest US Marine Corps base in the world, and many new students arrive throughout the year. “Teams makes it easier for new students and teachers to get adjusted quickly, and parents also find it easy to use Teams,” says Holland. “In the past, parents sometimes had difficulty helping their kids with homework because teachers used different tools. With everyone in Teams, it’s helped parents support their kids learning at home.”
Counselors use Teams to support wellness efforts at the district, such as helping students set up class schedules and giving advice. And some student clubs are holding group meetings in Teams to collaborate on projects.
Taylor and his IT colleagues used Microsoft Power Automate, a workflow automation solution within Teams, to create an app to help maintain social distancing when parents pick up students from school. “Using the app, parents drive up and scan a QR code that automatically alerts a teacher, who then sends the student out to meet their parents,” he says. “It helps avoid students congregating outside the school. We also used Power Automate and Teams to streamline the process of submitting bullying reports so that counsel.
Bringing peace of mind to parents, students, and teachers with Teams
The Onslow County School District was well placed to respond to COVID-19 thanks to its history of embracing new technology and the dedicated efforts of the IT department, led by Chief Technology Officer, Jeff Pittman. “Onslow County Schools is unique in the focus we put on technology,” says Holland. “We have 20 Digital Learning and Teaching Services facilitators, whereas other districts might have five at most.” That technology-forward approach proved valuable when schools in the district were able to respond quickly to the crisis and keep students up to speed.
In the first days of remote learning, providing consistency was important to everyone at Onslow County Schools. “Parents and kids were uncertain about a lot of things, but one thing they could be certain of was that their teachers were waiting for them in Teams,” says Torres. “That really helped settle everyone.”
For Torres and her colleagues, the ability to teach students seamlessly was a great relief. “On that first day, I started to get pictures from teachers showing me their Teams classes were working, and I even got one photo from a principal with tears in her eyes because she was so happy to see the kids were safe and learning from their teachers,” remembers Torres. For the school district, Teams has become an indispensable tool for responding to the unexpected and providing a great learning experience to students, no matter where they are.