COVID-19 Is Pushing School Tech Departments to Their Limits — and Then Some
Before March, the chief technology officers who keep modern classrooms connected would have agreed that new tech programs can’t be rolled out overnight. Yet that’s exactly what they have been doing for the past eight months as pandemic shut downs forced school districts to go virtual.
IT staffers scrambled to purchase thousands of new devices and provide Wi-Fi for students. One Texas school district fielded 35,000 calls to its technology help desk on the first day of remote classes. Another in Oregon launched an Amazon-style locker system for students to exchange broken devices.
“It seems like since March we’ve not stopped. Even in my dreams I’m solving problems,” says Pete Just, chief technology officer for Metropolitan School District of Wayne Township, whose Indiana district serves about 16,500 students. “Thankfully I have an amazing staff who are very seasoned … I had a number of meetings and said, ‘Here’s the problem, how do we even begin to solve it?’”
Innovating on the Fly
Among the earliest challenges CTOs faced was how to get thousands of laptops and tablets for students and staff一while every school district in the country was trying to do the same thing.
“It has been 12-hour days or more,” said Lorrie Owens, chief technology officer for the San Mateo County Office of Education in Redwood City, Calif. “When we went into shelter-in-place on March 17, we were clearing out Chromebook carts [not only] for students but also for our own employees. We’re clearing everything we’ve got in terms of spares and putting emergency orders to get devices in for our employees.”
Steven Langford, chief information officer of Beaverton School District in Beaverton, Ore., had 24 hours to transition 5,000 staff members into remote work when the district closed in March. Then his team had until the end of spring break to execute a remote learning strategy for the district’s more than 41,000 students.
Langford said the district had discussed a one-to-one Chromebook plan for years and an evening technology help desk for students. In a matter of weeks after the shutdown, both ideas were launched.
“As soon as we distributed our devices to our elementary students, possible or not we had to create a student help desk,” he said. “Previously we would take months to study and pilot it and do some testing. When you’re faced with, ‘It must be done and we've got a couple days,’ people’s vision of what is possible shifts.”
Filling the Gaps
In October, Alice Owens, executive director of the Texas K12 CTO Council, hosted a virtual meeting with about 220 school technology leaders in the Lone Star State. Two recurring themes were the need for more widespread internet access and tech support for families.
“It really became apparent that probably 25 to 30 percent of the students in their communities didn’t have reliable internet access, if at all,” she said. “Overnight they became tech support for the entire community. Now that all these devices were out in the community, they got thousands of calls from parents needing help.”
That mirrors Lorrie Owens’ experience in California. She said a philanthropic group stepped up to loan 217 Wi-Fi hotspots to children in San Mateo County, but there are thousands more still in need.
“We found that a number of families said, ‘Yes, we have access to the internet.’ Their interpretation of that answer is someone has a phone that has internet access,” she said. “When we moved to distance learning and these students needed to connect through Google Classroom or Zoom, we found that what they had identified as internet access was totally inadequate to what these students needed to continue their learning.”
Beyond getting students connected to the internet, CTOs had to figure out how to make hardware repairs for learners whose issues could no longer be solved with a five-minute trip to the library for a new laptop.
For technical issues that can’t be solved through a support chat, Just’s district has a contractor on the road 20-30 hours per week picking up broken devices and dropping off loaners. Langford’s team created a locker system where students can exchange a broken device for a functioning one.
“We are now having to support classes with 5-year-olds in them, with a device at home, and they might or might not have parents supporting them,” Langford said. “How do we support students who, while we’ve handed them a device, they might not know their alphabet yet?”
Just said now that his district has made remote learning possible on a larger scale, the next challenge will be making it better. While he worries about the students who have become disengaged by remote learning, he said parents who have seen the benefits will keep it in-demand. In Wayne Township, 70 percent of students this fall are either fully remote or going to class online three days per week.
“I do think it has permanently changed education as we know it,” he said. “People that think we’re going to go back to the plain old, plain old. I'm not sure we can or even should.”
Lorrie Owens said the pandemic has revealed the urgent need to get students connected to the internet at home. Hotspots are just a bandaid, she said, and San Mateo County is looking for ways to provide broadband internet county-wide.
“I think there is a huge spotlight now on the inequity in education between the haves and the have nots as it relates to technology resources,” she said. “We need to get to a point where we’re looking at internet access not a nicety, but it needs to be like a utility, like access to light and water.”
Langford likewise said internet connectivity is a major hurdle. His district is working with the Oregon Department of Education on solutions that work for urban areas as well as suburban and rural areas.
“That has consumed our fall. We are on a mission in Beaverton just like my colleagues all over the county to get our students connected,” he said. “The device is useless without the connection to your teacher and your class and your content.”