OETC Spotlight

‘I don’t think we’ll return this year to in-person learning,’

CIOs and IT share predictions on the coming school year

An OETC survey of dozens of CIOS, IT staff and teachers across the northwest reveals vast differences in timelines and attitudes, apprehension and the biggest concerns they face.

With nearly 70 respondents, the survey provides a wide-ranging view of the difference across states and institution sizes — but also the many, many points of agreement. It’s important to note that this isn’t a scientific survey; it’s a limited, voluntary sample. But despite that, the data paints a picture of a community very concerned about the challenges ahead of them, with some notable divides.

There is one point of total agreement: none of this is going to be easy. Districts are still facing the same difficulties they had when coronavirus began, with unequal broadband/device access and questions of equity.

“2 + 2 no longer equals 4.”

As shown in the reopening timing predictions, many are pessimistic about the chances of returning to school as we know it this year, and now there are increased expectations from parents and the community that distance learning will be elevated from its spring iteration.

On top of that, the larger the institution was, the less likely respondents are to feel confident about scaling up across several arenas — support, staff training and student/parent preparation.

These concerns are layered atop the anxiety so many are experiencing right now — how do we stop the spread of the virus and keep everyone safe? If this is truly a new paradigm, how will we shape it? When will life go back to normal?

With pressure coming from all sides and lots of guidelines but little guidance, the educational technology community across the west is on edge as they approach a year that will look like none other.

First, the who:


Institution Type


Job Title

four charts, showing the demographic breakdown of the survey

We had 68 individual respondents, spread across four states — Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Montana, with the last two only accounting for 9% of responses, a tiny sample. Because of that, we’re not breaking out data by state.

We did, however, see many differences in opinion between those from small, medium or large institutions — more on that later.

We had responses from K-12, ESDs and higher ed, but because the second two categories are so much smaller than the first, we also will not be breaking them out when discussing results.

A quick note that some institutions had more than one respondent, and of course opinions are those of individuals.

Question: When you open in the fall, do you expect your school will be fully open, on a hybrid model, or using comprehensive distance learning?

Pie chart showing responses to fall plans

“Anything but online is folly.”

An overwhelming majority say back-to-school doesn’t involve going back to anywhere. Just under 1 in 4 — 23% — say their students will start with a hybrid or full in-person model.

The Responses

“I am extremely relieved we have made the decision to start school in virtual mode. My hope is we will remain virtual through the entire first semester.” — Large Oregon school district

“Anything but online is folly.” — Small Washington school district

“I really believe kids need to be in school. However, in today’s climate I think if the superintendent made that decision there are more people that would oppose it. I think there is too much hysteria about the whole thing. I think there is a lot of politics at work, and the superintendents are stuck with it.” — Small Washington school district

“So much depends on personalities (virus and human) and events (virus and human) beyond our control. It is hard to pin down what may change in the next six weeks. The *virus metrics* introduced by Gov. Brown for Oregon are helpful, in the sense that we now have some definition of what we’re looking for regarding “safe schools” … and, they still leave a lot of room for *human metrics* about what “safe schools” look like, so I’m simply investing in my district’s ability to stay as nimble as possible throughout the year ahead.” — Medium Oregon school district

“We are bringing into the building certain populations that are at risk, such as special education and English language learners.” — Medium Washington school district

“Should be remote learning only at this point in time. We have way too many parents with the ‘You can’t make my kids wear a mask’-attitude.” — Small Idaho school district

Question: If you had to guess, when do you think your school will have students on-premises, whether that is a hybrid model or full opening?

pie chart showing opening responses

“I have watched students lick doorknobs like they are lollipops …”

Obviously there’s a range here, with 38% saying they expect to be on premises in some form during the fall, 41% predicting a return in the winter, and just over 1 in 5 predicting they won’t see a school door until spring or even this school year.

Breaking down the data further, we see a pronounced gap based on institution size:

Large (>20,000 ADM)

Medium (5,000-20,000 ADM)

Small (<5,000 ADM)

pie chart for this question, high-level

Those from large schools have an interesting timeline: while very few are going directly back onto premises, 46% think they will be somewhat open by winter. We see the same with medium institution folks, half of which predict the same timeline. With smaller institutions, 48% say they will be back immediately or by the fall.

The Responses

“If I truly had to guess, not in my official capacity, I don’t think we’ll return this year to in-person learning.” — Large Oregon school district

“‘The virus makes the timeline’ — and also, wear a damn mask so we can move forward.” — Medium Oregon school district

“November 5th or the following week.” — Medium Washington school district

“I took a best guess on the question above, but think an option like, “I have no f*cking idea” is most appropriate.” — Medium Oregon school district

“Being small, we can manage cohorts easily, and may get to hybrid soon, if statistics allow.” — Small Oregon school district

“When we move to Hybrid we will have all K-2 students attending school onsite while 3-12 will be in a AA / BB schedule with fully remote learning on Wednesdays.” — Medium Washington school district

“As long as the virus continues to spread out of control, it will be difficult for schools to open to in-person learning without becoming places where the virus will spread fast. I have watched students lick door knobs like they are lollipops … herd immunity will need to happen one way or another before in-person education can realistically be done safely.” — Small Oregon school district

Question: When do you think you’ll return to normal operations — all students and staff present on all days?

pie chart for this question, high-level

“Million-dollar question.”

Here, we see some real agreement: 60 percent don’t think normal operations will resume this year. But if we break it down by size again, something startling pops out:

Large (>20,000 ADM)

Medium (5,000-20,000 ADM)

Small (<5,000 ADM)

pie chart for this question, high-level

Every single respondent from a large institution, regardless of state, predicted there would be no returning to normal this year. We do see a strong trend here, with those from medium-sized institutions also pessimistic — 63% say the year is a wash. But among small schools, a majority do expect a return this school year. Even in that case, they don’t expect it to happen soon: only 16% expect to resume normal operations by November, while 23% predict a winter return and 19% are holding out hopes for the spring.

The Responses

“2021-2022 school year.” —Medium Washington school district

“Cohort isolation following a COVID diagnosis may deplete our sub pool and render in-person instruction impossible.” — Large Oregon school district

“Might not ever look ‘normal’ again.” — Small Oregon school district

“Million-dollar question.” — Medium Oregon school district

“As soon as we learn to wear masks in our community we will move this timeline up.” — Medium Washington school district

“My district has given the option of FULL-YEAR distance learning for 20-21. Therefore, I expect some students will not return this year, or ever.” — Small Washington school district

Question: What do you perceive as the strongest factors guiding your institution’s reopening plans? Pick as many as apply.

Top Reopening Factors

pie chart for this question, high-level

“It would be a great day if I felt the need to type ‘Student Opinion’ on the ‘Other’ line. I don’t. *sigh*”

A huge number of respondents say their schools are looking to state and local guidelines — 88%. Less than half are relying on CDC and federal guidelines (42%). Interestingly, we see that staff/faculty opinion holds a slight edge over parent and community opinion.

When we look by size, there’s broad consensus, with a plurality of all three groups listing state and local as the top factor. We do, however, see that the school board or board of trustees is far less likely to be important among large institution respondents (4.5 percent listed it) than those from medium or small institutions (12.9 and 14 percent, respectively). Additionally, those from large institutions are likelier than others to mention faculty and staff.

The ‘Other’ Factors

Eight respondents wrote in their own factors guiding reopening decisions:

  • All of these played a role in our decision making
  • State Metrics
  • Health department guidelines
  • Tribal Council
  • Student Input
  • Decisions based on emotion and not logic
  • Union contracts and protections
  • State is more restrictive than local health department

The Responses

“It would be a great day if I felt the need to type ‘Student opinion’ on the ‘Other’ line. I don’t. *sigh*.” — Medium Oregon school district

“Health and safety are at the core.” — Medium Oregon school district

“I think our district’s respect of parent, community, and staff opinions is so strong the district would not resume on-premise instruction if those groups felt it wasn’t safe to open, even if state and federal guidelines allowed or required on-premise instruction.” — Medium Oregon school district

“We have not been able to get answers from the state level on opening so the administration has had to create plans and tie them to state metrics without guidance.” — Medium Washington school district

“2 + 2 no longer equals 4.” — Small Oregon school district

“Liability moratorium desperately needed.” — Small Oregon school district

Question: How concerned are you about the following aspects of the coming school year?

pie chart for this question, high-level

“Challenging puts it lightly.”

Access to broadband, preventing the spread of virus inside school facilities and preparing students and families for comprehensive distance learning were three major points of concern — in each, a plurality of respondents gave the highest answer possible, “Very Concerned.” But the level of concern for various facets of the reopening does vary across institution sizes:

Level of concern: Hotspots/access to broadband

Large (>20,000 ADM)

Medium (5,000-20,000 ADM)

Small (<5,000 ADM)

pie chart for this question, high-level

Here, we see that around 1-in-3 medium or small institution respondents are “very” concerned, while that number drops to 15% for larger institutions.

Level of concern: Technical support for remote learning

Large (>20,000 ADM)

Medium (5,000-20,000 ADM)

Small (<5,000 ADM)

pie chart for this question, high-level

77% of those from large institutions say they are very or moderately concerned about technical support, while that number drops to 42% for medium institutions and 35% for small institutions.

Level of concern: Cybersecurity

Large (>20,000 ADM)

Medium (5,000-20,000 ADM)

Small (<5,000 ADM)

pie chart for this question, high-level

Again, a big gap: 84% of respondents from large institutions are very or somewhat concerned, with a nearly 50% reporting they are very concerned. That number drops to 8% for medium institutions, and 10% for small.

Level of concern: Staff and teacher trainings

Large (>20,000 ADM)

Medium (5,000-20,000 ADM)

Small (<5,000 ADM)

pie chart for this question, high-level

Again, a huge difference across various sizes. This may speak to the scale issue we saw with the question of providing support from a distance.

The Responses

“To public opinion, it’s important. And, as those of us who have been around have observed and experienced, we often have 49.7% of our community upset with us no matter what decisions we make. For example, snow days … No win.” — Medium Oregon school district

“Distance learning is creating all kinds of labor management issues. Challenging puts it lightly.” — Medium Washington school district

“It is going to be very difficult to get students and families up to speed with distance learning without some face-to-face instruction on how it is going to work.” — Medium Washington school district

“Our district has many rural students with hotspots that don’t work for them, nor other internet available unless they travel. If parents are working, they need to walk on unsafe roads to get to the nearest WiFi.” — Small Oregon school district

“Parents are working and need schools for daycare; many kids are at home unsupervised, without help. Teachers aren’t getting training, we wasted the whole summer off-contract without preparation. Tech support not enough for family and evening help.” — Small Oregon school district

Question: Any other thoughts you’d like to share on the coming school year?

“Broadband isn’t available, in any form, to many students.” — Small Oregon school district

“I’d believed, before all this, that managing a 1:1 environment was hard. What we have been through these past few months and what we have yet to go through makes that look like a cake walk — with no end in sight.” — Medium Washington school district

“Personally, it’s a challenge to create structure, reestablish work/life balance, and deal with all the emotions of the push and pull of wanting to be in the office, but knowing my work does not require being in the office and it is safer to stay away.” — Medium Oregon school district

“Welcome to our new reality!”