On the sixth day of 2020, a small item ran in the Asia Pacific section of the New York Times, headed ‘China Grapples With Mystery Pneumonia-Like Illness’. 59 patients were experiencing “high fever, difficulty breathing and lung lesions … no deaths have been reported but seven people are critically ill.”
It is impossible to talk about 2020 without talking about coronavirus; it is also difficult to fully remember life before it, which sometimes makes 2020 feel like The Only Year. 2020 was a year of repeatedly entering pitch-black, lethally booby-trapped rooms, then being told to make the bed.
But despite all of this, it was a year of strange opportunities, with new paradigms, understandings, and a chance to think outside the box (the box having been destroyed by a meteor). Particularly for educational technologists, it was a year of at last being heard, having a long-denied seat at the table. It was a year when fantasies like 1:1 became a reality within days.
It was, in short, a year that cannot be forgotten. And so, let’s take a look back at the Year That Was, divided into seven distinct periods.
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A Mounting Dread
January to Mid-February
As the educational technology community planned for a year that they did not expect would be so radically different than those that preceded it — debating flat panels versus projectors and which web filter was superior in the ACPE email threads — a threat began bubbling up into the American consciousness.
The Seattle Times had one article mentioning the coronavirus on Jan 11th, but by Jan. 31, there were 24, spanning all sections of the newspaper. While virologists and public health officials tried to raise the alarm, the only known cases in the U.S. were from those who had recently traveled from China.
For many school districts, it felt like a distant threat.
“It really hadn’t affected Idaho much. During January and even into February, it was not a big deal for us; it was something that was going on far away,” said Gordon Howard, director of Safe Schools for Bonneville School District, which serves 13,000 students in southeast Idaho.
“I remember one Sunday, I was in Albany for my kid’s soccer game, and I ran around town to multiple Walgreen’s and Rite-Aid locations buying every touchless thermometer I could find.”
—Dr. Joe Morelock, Superintendent for Newberg Public Schools
But even as there were very few cases, districts in and near larger cities started to form their game plans.
“We were talking about it at the district level by mid-February,” said Dr. Joe Morelock, superintendent of Newberg Public Schools. “With every passing day, it became more and more apparent that this was going to be a reality because of what was happening in Europe. It felt like there was no way we were going to keep this out of the U.S. and stop it from spreading.”
Despite that, and the district already having a pandemic emergency plan, there was quite a bit of scrambling.
“We started purchasing hotspots very quickly, and had 400 by the beginning of March,” he said. “I remember one Sunday, I was in Albany for my kid’s soccer game, and I ran around town to multiple Walgreens and Rite-Aid locations buying every touchless thermometer I could find.”
Late February to Mid March
Steve Langford, CIO of Beaverton School District, sent his first coronavirus-related staff note on March 1.
“There was one case of COVID in Washington County, and we’d formed a planning team at the district at the district to gauge response, just in case it became a pandemic, which is funny to think about now,” he said. “It was interesting — we were up in Bothell for an ACPE retreat, just a mile from the nursing homes that got hit. Overnight, it went from a single case to people panicking because entire assisted living homes were compromised.”
The first two weeks of March, he said, sent the district into overdrive.
“The district pandemic response team was meeting daily,” he said. “Plus, we were dealing with staff across the district who were very concerned about their health and welfare. We were looking at significant staffing issues as people chose not to come to work because they were scared.”
Any hopes that perhaps coronavirus would spare the Pacific Northwest were shattered on Feb. 27, when Northshore School District’s Bothell High School was closed after a staff member’s family member fell ill. Two days later, Washington had its first three cases of community spread (meaning there was no clear exposure point), with one dead and two critically ill.
“Schools are a lot more than just a place where students learn. It’s where they’re taken care of, where they get medical care, where they get social care, where they get emotional care.”
—Don Wolff, CTO for Portland Public Schools
By March 2, there were 48 schools in Washington closed for coronavirus cleanings (a quaint notion, now!) and Northshore began to embark on its incredibly ambitious distance learning program, spun up over the course of just a few days.
Executive Director for Technology Allen Miedema discussed the situation in a March 13 OETC panel discussion:
“We’re pushing devices out to kids, training teachers up on tools they hadn’t used before or might not be super familiar with, and teachers, for the most part, are enthusiastically embracing the idea, and trying to make it work,” he said, while adding that new state orders would modify the process somewhat.
During the same panel, Portland Public Schools CIO Don Wolff noted what would become so clear in the months since: Schools provide much, much more than just learning.
“We are not trying to deliver an online education yet … we’re going to use the next three weeks on our extended break to reevaluate what we can provide in a way to keep students engaged, connected to other students and their teachers, and let them know they’re not alone and not isolated in this scary time,” he said. “We’ve set up 18 hub sites where we’ll be delivering food to our students. Schools are a lot more than just a place where students learn. It’s where they’re taken care of, where they get medical care, where they get social care, where they get emotional care.”
“Cohort isolation following a COVID diagnosis may deplete our sub pool and render in-person instruction impossible.”
—Anonymous employee of a large Oregon district
On Friday the 13th of March, the order went out across Oregon, Washington, Alaska, Idaho and Montana: today will be your last day of class. Unspoken was the when of reopening: while some governors gave three-week timelines, it was clear that was an incredibly optimistic one, soon to be obliterated.
“It was about the third week of March that we started getting into discussions of what we were going to do as the state of Idaho mandated us to go fully online,” Gordon Howard said. “At that point in time, I don’t know if we had half a dozen cases in southeast Idaho. Hindsight is 20/20, but we looked at it as a knee jerk reaction — we weren’t preventing anything because there was nothing to prevent. We left for spring break and didn’t come physically back until August.”
See What Sticks
March 6, we start wondering how deeply we’ll be affected in Oregon. (@amiedema and @ShelbyReynolds are in the midst of an early transition to learning at home in Washington). pic.twitter.com/8Bka72Q8Oi— Rachel Wente-Chaney (@rwentechaney) March 29, 2020
Note: Rachel Wente-Chaney’s twitter retelling of March using only Home Alone gifs is perhaps the most important contemporaneous text about the first month of COVID-19.
As schools entered a new world, many technology directors saw long-held dreams come true, with 1:1 rollouts moving from the realm of fantasy into poncho-wearing staff handing Chromebooks through car windows.
In April, now-retired North Clackamas School District Director Technology Director Tricia George spoke to OETC about a dramatically changed landscape: “We’re passing out Chromebooks like nobody’s business,” she said at the time. “It’s funny — I’ve always wanted a take-home device program, and we did it in a week.”
In the same story, Mark Finstrom, chief technology officer for Highline Public Schools, noted his district had handed out 6,500 devices in a single week, with documents available in English, Spanish, Vietnamese and Somali.
But enormous questions remained, specifically in the realm of digital equity. Students without broadband access at home already had worse learning outcomes than their connected peers, and what had been a hindrance to learning now made it an impossibility.
“We put a lot of effort into really quickly trying to spin up virtual education and from the ed side of things we were pretty dang great at it. And then we ran smack into the wall of the things we don’t have control over,” said Rachel Wente-Chaney, the CIO for High Desert ESD, in a recent interview. “It was the stress around elementary-aged childcare for parents who needed to go to work, home bandwidth and internet access, and adding new technical skills quickly for our teachers and district leadership teams.”
“It’s funny — I’ve always wanted a take-home device program, and we did it in a week.”
—Tricia George, Former Executive Director of Technology and Information Services for North Clackamas School District
Hotspots became a must, and tech directors got up close and personal with representatives from various cell networks and ISPs, trying to find plans that could get internet into the remotest of places. Districts made buses into mobile hotspots that could be deployed near apartment buildings, and spun-up help desks in multiple languages.
Read More: The Triumphs of 2020
Early Summer Optimism is Quickly Replaced By Rest-of-the-Summer Pessimism
Sadly, there was no time for laurel-resting: It was clear that whatever was going to happen in the fall would be very different from any back-to-school in living memory.
May was still an early time in our understanding of coronavirus, and there was hope that perhaps it would fade with warmer weather (and not return in force until the winter) and that steps like plexiglass dividers, UV sterilization and distance between students could make classrooms safe. Plans were made for various hybrid models, rotating groups of kids between in-person and online learning.
At one point, Texas Medical Center — the largest hospital complex in the world, which spans four area codes — was above 100% of their regular ICU capacity and had to convert beds.
Then in late May, the country exploded. George Floyd was killed when a Milwaukee police officer kneeled on his neck for nine horrifying minutes as onlookers screamed. Within a week, the United States was seeing the largest protests for civil rights in its history, with between 15 and 26 million participants — dwarfing the numbers of the late 1960s. The protests rippled throughout culture, as well, with school boards and districts across the country adopting new anti-racism policies, and taking a fresh look at digital inequality as it relates to race, ethnicity and class.
There was another explosion happening across the country and cases were soaring, especially the Sun Belt, where it is generally too hot during the summer months to gather outside. Florida, Texas and Arizona were hit particularly hard; at one point, Texas Medical Center — the largest hospital complex in the world, which spans four area codes — was above 100% of their regular ICU capacity and had to convert beds.
In a late-August OETC survey, a full 60% of respondents — and 100% of large school district respondents — said they didn’t imagine they would have full schools at any point during the upcoming year.
“It was a year of making the least-worst decision.”
— Rachel Wente-Chaney, CIO of High Desert Education Service District
One employee at a large district said that “cohort isolation following a COVID diagnosis may deplete our sub pool and render in-person instruction impossible,” (this did come to pass for Idaho’s Caldwell School District, which closed in mid-October for a few days as 14% of teachers were on quarantine and subs were increasingly difficult to find). Someone from a small district said that schooling might never look the same again.
Some districts reported that despite state guidelines, they could not see re-opening to in-person learning without strong community support:
“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,” an employee of a medium-sized Oregon district wrote, “even if state and federal guidelines allowed or required on-premise instruction.”
Read More: Coronavirus Survey Results
A Hellish Back-to-School
September to October
As school openings approached — in-person or, more frequently in Oregon and Washington, fully online — educators held their breath.
Then, we actually couldn’t breathe as historic wildfires raced across the entire West Coast, blanketing states with hazardous air quality and apocalyptic orange skies.
Phoenix-Talent School District IT Manager Allan Quirós’ district was one of the hardest hit, with large swaths of the town completely leveled in the span of hours on Sept. 8. He and his team fled to an elementary school in the relatively-unscathed city of Medford, and within 48 hours, they had the district back up and running.
“Our district has been able to continue educating children despite this year’s events. We have an amazing team.”
—Allan Quirós, District IT Manager for Phoenix-Talent School
“The first thing we had to do was move equipment from the district office — computers, firewall, content filter — because we had to resume normal operations like finance and HR. Obviously, people were going to be calling the district and we had no power there,” he said in a late September interview. “Little by little, everything started coming online. By Thursday of that week, we got our network up via hotspot, and were using our cell phones for phone service. By Friday, we had basic operations, including our financial systems and SIS, up and running.”
Earlier this week, Allan said that the school continues smoothly despite the devastation.
“Things are going well, and our district has been able to help the community and continue educating children despite this year’s events,” said, adding that they’re offering both comprehensive distance learning and limited in-person instruction. “We have an amazing team … I’m proud to be able to serve with them!”
Meanwhile, in Santiam Canyon School District, which contains the towns of Mill City, Gates, Detroit, Idanha and the surrounding areas, a large number of students and staff homes were completely destroyed.
In fact, Technology Director Sam Proctor said, the fires themselves spared the schools (aside from $2.5 million in smoke damage), but the district suffered a major loss of devices and equipment that had already been sent home.
“We had eight staff members who lost their houses, and we’d build whole home offices — keyboards, monitors, document cameras, headsets. We took a bigger loss there than with equipment on-site at the district,” he said in late September. “Luckily, we hadn’t yet handed out Chromebooks or devices to students.”
Despite all that, they were able to open schools on Sept. 30, with students and teachers sitting outside school buildings, using the strong WiFi that was up and running.
He, too, reported that his district has truly bounced back.
“We have had a huge amount of support from all over, locally and nationally. It’s been great,” he said. “Over the last month or so new equipment has been arriving, our new buildings are finally getting finished up, and the staff here have done any amazing job working with our families. We have gotten some learning hubs setup and will hopefully be bringing kids back in some form soon after the break.”
Read More How to Survive a Wildfire
“All summer long, we met as a district leadership team putting together a reopening team for August. We went through all the questions — what if we get positive cases? How do we quarantine?”
—Gordon Howard, Director of Safe Schools for Bonneville School District
Meanwhile in Idaho, things were running on a very different track. The emphasis, from the governor downward, was to have as many schools open as possible, perhaps reflecting a wide partisan divide on school closures. There were fewer state guidelines than in Oregon and Washington, with much more of an emphasis on local decision making.
“We started in May, and all summer long, we met as a district leadership team putting together a reopening team for August. We went through all the questions — what if we get positive cases? How do we quarantine?” said Bonneville’s Gordon Howard. “It ended up being a 40-page document. How you handle the business situation, how you handle lunch, even things like the water fountains in the schools … it was an exhaustive process.”
The district has been in school full-time since then, he said, with a few small modifications: Mondays at the secondary level are remedial time for those who are falling behind; the elementary schools do so every other Monday. All lessons are put online for students who have to quarantine.
“The kids that are exposed in school, what we’re finding is that only 1-2% are getting sick, so what that tells us is that kids are getting sick at activities outside of school,” he said. “We’ll do contact tracing — say ‘OK, Gordon is sick, and those kids who sat within six feet of me have to be quarantined for seven days, and if they don’t get sick they can come back.”
Voters See the Value
Then in November came one of the most contentious elections in our lifetimes, with the country still deeply divided over the outcome.
But there was one thing that voters in both Oregon and Washington overwhelmingly agreed upon: the importance of funding schools. Bonds and levies passed overwhelmingly in both states, going 14 for 17 in Oregon and 100% in Washington.
Although it seemed like passing extra taxes during a severe downturn would be hard, in fact bond consultancies reported that the public had a newfound understanding of the important role schools play in our civic lives — and how crucial tech is to the process.
“We are in the final stages of a 10GB multidirectional network capable of up to 100GB. This will be the backbone of our 5G network.”
—Mark Finstrom, CTO for Highline Public Schools
Now, districts have big plans. Mark Finstrom, CTO of Highline Public Schools in SeaTac, is building out a 5G LTE network.
“We have a project currently underway, and are in the final stages of a 10GB multidirectional network capable of up to 100GB. This will be the backbone of our 5G network,” he said in November. “We’ve got a figure out, where we’re going to mount antennas and repeaters, locations — inside the building or outside the building, on light poles at the school or fields, and then we need to run it all back through our district.”
At Portland Public Schools, CTO Don Wolff is looking at $128.2 million earmarked for tech out of the massive $1.2-billion bond that voters passed 75-25.
In November, he reported a lot of fun projects on the horizon:
“The upside with CDL is that we’ve jumped five years ahead of where we would have been if we’d stayed in brick and mortar and ran traditional 1:1 deployments and adoptions” he said. “The downside is we’ve got classroom modernization needs, which will be addressed with this bond. Only about 33% of our schools have instructional wireless with no dead spots, and we have around 100 buildings.”
Read More Voters Say Yes to EdTech
Hope is on the Horizon … But Not Yet Here
As 2020 draws to a close, we are in a place of both unprecedented danger and real optimism. The virus has spiked throughout the country, setting new case and death count records every few days. The post-Thanksgiving spike is just coming into full, terrifying view, and an anticipated Christmas spike may be much worse.
Yet within the last week, the FDA officially approved the last vaccine, and by the time you read this, Americans will have received the first non-trial vaccines. In Oregon, Gov. Brown anticipates having 100,000 vaccinated by the end of December. Washington State should have 400,000 doses in-hand as 2020 comes to a close, and Idaho is slated to get nearly 15,000 in just this week.
We are consumed by a monthslong final boss battle against a submicroscopic bit of genetic code neither alive nor dead.
In all three states, educators are part of the 1B group of those to be vaccinated, right in line behind medical workers and those living in long-term care facilities. It is entirely possible that many of you reading this will be vaccinated between mid-January and mid-February.
We are consumed by a monthslong final boss battle against a submicroscopic bit of genetic code neither alive nor dead. At the same time, we are finally in a place where we can look to a post-COVID future. From this brutal reckoning of a year, what is worth carrying forward with us?
“What I am most excited about is the communications increase, between the students, the teachers, and the parents, because we’ve provided options,” said North Clackamas Executive Director of Technology Derrick Brown. “Parent-teacher conference participation increased because we offered video and phone options instead of in-person. Technology provides so much flexibility.”
It has also, he said, proved the value in things technology departments have sought for decades, like 1:1 for secondary students and online learning.
“The devices we had were in classrooms, in carts, until we didn’t have a choice come March 16,” he said. “The question now is, are we going to pull them back? I’m thinking we might not. Now we know it’s a good idea for our students to have devices to continue learning, and teachers have increased interactions with families.”
Overall, he said, the biggest lesson of 2020 is the strength of educators, students and families.
“First and foremost, we’re resilient, and we can do this,” he said.
Steve Langford said that the pandemic has shaken the public educational system so much that it opened a once-in-a-lifetime chance for significant innovation.
“In IT especially, but even beyond IT, we’re starting to think about how we reimagine what we’re doing in education,” he said. “We’ve been forced to do things we didn’t think were possible in this crisis, and some things have been going really well.”
“The importance of giving students a or b, a choice that fits them — I think that’s really something to take from this year.”
—Rachel Wente-Chaney, CIO of High Desert Education Service District
“It was a year of making the least-worst decision,” said Rachel Wente-Chaney, laughing. But, she quickly added, it was a year where the different needs of individual students came to the forefront — and demonstrated how technology can be an incredibly important tool to meet those needs.
“There are those of us who, for the past decade, have wondered if all school could be virtual. We now have that answer, and it’s no,” she said. “But the paradox and irony is that in some, we learned the exact opposite, hearing, ‘My child has dreaded going to school for years because of bullying, disengagement, racism, or simply shyness and an introverted spirit.’ And we’re hearing stories of how parents are now seeing them thrive in an online environment.”
“So I think the thing we take with us is the understanding of how important in-person school is for some, and how important the flexibility of not having to be in-person is for others. It reaffirms the work that so many have been doing in K-12 education around differentiated learning.”
“The importance of giving students a or b, a choice that fits them — I think that’s really something to take from this year.”
— Kelly Williams Brown