OETC’s Spotlight is a series of stories, interviews and Q&As highlighting news and ideas from across the Northwest EdTech community. Read more stories here.
It’s as simple as moving a computer to the other side of a classroom, and as complicated as un-splitting the VPN channels. It’s thinking through what it means to have an in-classroom experience on a far-away screen. It’s preserving the very real benefits for students who use tech tools for language gaps, shyness or disabilities. It’s fear of the unknown, followed often by a strange relief at how smoothly everything goes.
Across Oregon and Washington, kids in medium and large districts are heading back to the classroom, and tech leadership is facing a new slate of challenges. Oregon prioritized vaccinating teachers, which means many, if not most, are moving on a similar timeline: Gov. Brown issued an executive order that elementary students should return to school by March 28, while grades 6-12 should reconvene no later than April 15. Lots of schools already have K-2 in classes.
North of the Columbia River, things are a bit more complicated: because educators only started receiving their first doses within the last month, there are some fraught, ongoing labor disputes that have frequently pushed back opening dates. Some districts are well into the reopening process, while others have yet to begin.
One Washington district experiencing a smooth reopening is Auburn, located just east of Federal Way. K-2 began their in-person classes on March 1, with grades 3-5 joining them on March 15.
Executive Director of Technology Jennifer Clouser said the work began long before they had any idea of the actual re-opening date.
“We’ve really engaged non-traditional staff in the solution for our support model. Now, we have staff trained on how to do things they’ve never done before, and we’re really excited about these opportunities.”
— Jennifer Clouser, Auburn Public Schools
Back in the winter, they held a series of training sessions for their teachers on how to go live on YouTube; they also trained their paraeducators to be able to assess and troubleshoot Chromebooks, so every library has a small tech support center.
“We asked the teachers to review their classrooms and spaces, and give us a list by a specific date of the things we needed to address,” she said. “For example, moving the computer from one side of the room to the other.”
But there’s also concerns for the students who won’t be in the classroom: Jennifer reports that up to 50% of students may stay home, which means that teachers have to be able to address both audiences. Concurrent teaching will likely be used mostly in secondary, but they are still building in that capacity into elementary classrooms as well.
“We purchased voice amplification systems for targeted, needs-based usage and are testing additional tools, like for Securly Classroom, that allow for two-way chats between teachers and students who are home,” she said. “We expect to deploy more microphone and voice-enhancement type equipment that we have waiting in the wings.”
Broadcasting from the classroom, of course, raises multiple privacy concerns to be addressed.
“We did not deploy wide-sweeping webcams,” she said. “What we’re asking teachers is to use their classroom PC for things on the web, and using their Chromebook as a webcam, so they’re logged in twice to their own Meet.”
Above all, she said, she’s proud of the flexibility and resiliency of everyone in the district. “We’re pretty proud of all the training opportunities that we’d had for our paras; it makes everything more inclusive. We’ve really engaged non-traditional staff in the solution for our support model. Now, we have staff trained on how to do things they’ve never done before, and we’re really excited about these opportunities.”
At Seattle Public Schools to the north, questions remain about specific opening dates, but the entire tech department is hard at work.
“Network-wise, we had last summer split our VPN tunnels for students, so any outside traffic did not come through the district. That will change when they come back in school, because that will be too big of a load on the network … so we’ll have to sort of un-split all that.”
— Nancy Petersen, Seattle Public Schools
As they begin the return to schools, Director of Infrastructure Nancy Petersen is working to upgrade wireless networks speeds across the district’s 105 schools; they recently acquired 100GB from their ISP.
“Network-wise, we had last summer split our VPN tunnels for students, so any outside traffic did not come through the district,” Nancy said. “That will change when they come back in school, because that will be too big of a load on the network … so we’ll have to sort of un-split all that.”
Executive Director of Technology Carlos Del Valle then noted how, for lots of students, distance learning has given them the ability to connect with peers in ways they couldn’t in-person.
“COVID uncovered a lot of inequities in the system,” he said, “and some kids have said, ‘For you guys to give us the ability to chat within Teams has opened me up to other kids who are also shy, and now we can communicate, whereas when we were in the classroom, it’s too stressful.'”
He mentioned how technology can help make learning accessible for kids, and that it’s extremely important to bring those tools for remote learning — like closed-captioning and amplified audio — into the classroom.
They are also looking at how to continue providing expanded access for families who lacked it before the pandemic.
“The pandemic only exposed these inequalities, and the end of the pandemic is not the end of the need of these families to get connected,” Nancy said. “You can’t even apply to a job without being on the internet. I’m worried that not enough time is being spent on infrastructure, on making a permanent fixture rather than just a stop-gap.”
Over at neighboring district Tacoma, CIO Ed Grassia said that the name of the game for reopening has been flexibility.
“I can’t think of a single decision we came to where we didn’t change course two, three, 12 times,” he said, laughing.
Lots of steps have been the little things: setting up charging stations so that kids who arrive with a low-battery can charge it during lunch. Having loaner laptops on-hand in case one is forgotten or broken. They’re even discussing whether to let kids keep their laptops for four years.
Steve Menachemson, director of technology for Eugene School District, seconded the frequently-changing plans memo, and said that it has been tough at times to communicate with parents and guardians.
“As soon as you put something out there, people are either going to love it or hate it,” he said, adding that it feels impossible to please everyone.
“We built it so that it doesn’t matter what the future looks like. The same way the work world has changed, the education world has changed.”
— Ed Grassia, Tacoma Public Schools
Another challenge: because supply chains are still so screwy, it can be incredibly difficult to make plans based on specific products or technologies.
“We bought document cameras and headsets, and that took us four months,” he said. “Four months from now is the end of June, so we have to be very strategic on what we’re putting in the classroom.”
“I’d love the opportunity of highlighting certain things in the room to an audience that can’t see the whiteboard,” he said. “Perhaps better sound, too, so people can hear what’s going on. Little speakers on a laptop are not conducive to filling a room with sound.”
He worries about how to give kids adequate social-emotional support, and notes that no one truly knows what impact the past year has had on them.
“How are you going to get a young student to sit in a seat and not move? Wherever you turn, there’s a problem,” he said. “It’s a bit like building an airplane in the air.”
But, he said, one silver lining is that district administration has truly seen the vital role that tech plays within the system.
“Historically, tech was just a shiny object, and now the realization is that we’re a critical piece,” he said. “Leadership has been critical for that change and decision making around it, and I’m very grateful to them.”
This is, indeed, what all districts can agree on: the genie of ubiquitous educational technology cannot be put back in the bottle, and the department is valued in a new way.
“We’ve already lost one staff member who was offered a full-time remote position who, because of having kids, it was just a better option for them,” Ed Grassia said. “So if we don’t become more flexible in our world, it’s possible we will lose IT staff to companies that do offer remote work.”
“From a technology standpoint, we are now at the point where it doesn’t matter whether kids are in class or at home or on vacation. They can access our tools, the LMS, their Office 365 accounts, their email — everything is accessible outside of our network via filtered device that we can offer remote support to,” he added. “We built it so that it doesn’t matter what the future looks like. The same way the work world has changed, the education world has changed.”