At 12:30 a.m. last Monday, Tricia George’s cell phone buzzed. Annoyed that she’d forgotten to silence it before she went to sleep, she got up to check the text message. Then, instead of going back to bed, North Clackamas School District’s tech director got out of bed and got to work.
The message that awoke her was from a colleague with news that sent school districts across Oregon scrambling last week: a 29-page document from the Oregon Department of Education titled “Oregon’s Extended School Closure Guidance.”
With it, Oregon joined Washington State, whose Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) a week earlier had issued their own guidelines. In both states, schools were now required to be teaching — but many of the details about how, when and where were up to the districts themselves.
That night, Tricia said, folks throughout the school district, from administrators to coaches, starting planning together. Their first priority was a unified message to all staff. A slide deck was put together so each principal could explain to staff, in depth, the plan and timeline. There were trainings to be scheduled, using coaches who would (digitally) fan out to provide help to teachers with the digital tools they’d be using.
Then, there were the students, and among the first tasks was figuring out how to distribute thousands of Chromebooks. So far, the district has distributed more than 5,000 by school bus, and that number continues to grow.
“We’re passing out Chromebooks like nobody’s business,” she said. “It’s funny — I’ve always wanted a take-home device program, and we did it in a week.”
In addition to distributing nearly 500 hotspots to families, she’s also, she said, working hard to spread the word about free internet access via XFINITY/Comcast and cell carriers to families who may not have broadband in the home.
Internet access is just one tiny facet of an enormous puzzle: schools have been tasked first and foremost with equity, but that has never been more impossible to deliver.
“The guidance we’ve gotten is trying to straddle two very philosophically different things,” said Dr. Joe Morelock, superintendent of Newberg School District. “There’s a huge part about equity and inclusion … and then conversely, in the same document, there are so many things that are structured around compliance. And so our challenge is, how do we do both?”
As the deadline looms, Joe said his team is striving not to launch a perfect, fully-developed model on April 13, but rather get everyone ready with the basics and the knowledge that it will evolve as everyone becomes more comfortable.
“We have a very talented staff that are working themselves crazy to meet that deadline,” he said “And I also know that it’s not going to be a perfect launch across 197 school districts … but we are all doing something for the very first time, and even though it’s scary and unclear how it will look, I have a lot of confidence in our people. I know we’re going to come up with something that is good, and eventually we will tune it so that it becomes great.”
Glenn Whitcomb, IT operations manager for Pasco School district, supervised extensive device hand-outs last week, with more on the way. Luckily, the district had already done a full 1:1 deployment in their secondary schools in the fall, so now they just needed to get devices out to elementary students. He’s starting with grades 3-6, and still considering whether the district will be able to get their youngest students devices.
“We’ll probably have about 12,000, or close to that, out when we’re done,” he said, adding that the load on his team has become intense. Normally they handle 10 to 15 support calls per day.
“On Monday — just Monday — we had 90,” he said.
He said that all staff in the district have truly stepped up, working overtime and creatively to address challenges on the fly, and that they are taking everything one step at a time.
“If we can get through the next round of device handouts, and get students comfortable on the devices, we’ll be doing OK.”
Mark Finstrom, chief technology officer for Highline Public Schools, said his district has the Chromebook hand-out routine down pat.
“We handed out almost 6,500 laptops this week alone,” he said. “We had all of our documents in English, Spanish, Vietnamese and Somali.”
The district, he said, deployed teams so that there was an administrator, office personnel, interpreters, teachers and technicians at each site, allowing them to answer any questions in the field.
Meanwhile, up in Northshore Public Schools, Shelby Reynolds has been fine-tuning her district’s plans.
“We’ve been having this sort of start-stop-start-stop thing that’s given some people struggles,” said the instructional technology and library services manager.
Northshore turned heads around the country when, as one of the very first school districts to close, it rolled out an incredibly extensive, tech-forward distance learning plan — only to be told by OSPI to pause, then, on March 23, getting the go-ahead.
“So we weren’t starting from zero … we took what was working for us and matched the state’s version,” she said.
The break, she said, allowed the school district to round out their planning.
“It helped our special education leadership team define how service would be provided in a variety of areas — for example, what a digital IEP meeting would look like,” she said. “If we have a document that needs to be signed, how are we going to do that in the context of a Zoom meeting? If we are providing services to a student who is hard-of-hearing what are the best captioning services? In hindsight, I wish we’d had those conversations a month ago.”
But, she said, there have been silver linings and incredible opportunities even in something as awful as the pandemic.
“There are times when I feel overwhelmed, and that all the things I would normally be doing are no longer relevant — I have a new school opening in the fall, and I have to order equipment, but I have no way to accept delivery of it,” Shelby said. “But on the other hand, we’ve launched initiatives that I’ve been dying to do for 15 years in the district.
Tricia George agreed.
“I’ve never been more challenged, but it’s been incredible. Over the past week, I’ve worked with every department — family services, risk management, transportation — we’re all planning remotely, and we’re all like, ‘we got this!,’” she said. “I feel so grateful for the way people lean in in situations like this.”
She is also looking to the future — “Imagine the skill sets that our teachers and administrators are all going to have when this is all over,” she said.
“It’s been one of the most exciting and fulfilling and rewarding couple of weeks, because we’re finally getting the changes we’ve worked toward,” Shelby said, “and it’s never going to be the same.”