Education Needs Some Grace

In the last few weeks, COVID-19 has turned Education as we know it upside down. School buildings are closed, teachers are working remotely, and students have lost the traditions that come with graduation and end of year activities. Hop on any social media platform and you will see accolades and criticism for the approaches that local districts have used and what parents feel about having to guide their children's education. I feel the need to give some perspective.

Throughout my 20 year career in Education, I worked for three districts that used 1:1 devices with their students. These were programs at the Secondary level, so only middle school and high schools were impacted. Each district had chosen a different device and planned for the rollouts in different ways. In one district, I started working on year 1, another on year 3, and the last was a well-oiled machine of many years. But all of these districts had some things in common:

1. Infrastructure: Regardless of the size of a student body or school campus, the move from several computer labs to all students having access to a device requires upgrade of infrastructure. Running new cables, adding access points and updating servers is both costly and time consuming. Most districts have to bid these jobs out and bring in contractors to complete the work.

2. Connectivity: Once your infrastructure is robust enough to take the traffic, the connectivity for students once they leave the school building must be considered. In urban settings, places like McDonalds and Starbucks may help with free access to WiFi. Schools in more rural settings have to plan differently by acquiring hotspots for checkout or much used locations like parking lots and community centers.

3. Software and programs: Schools must assess and select digital programs for instruction and eBook textbooks for instructional materials. This usually encompasses similar steps to adopting new textbooks and requires many stakeholders to offer input. Once selection and purchase are in place, creating accounts and teaching users how to use the programs must be scheduled and completed.

4. Parent Communication: Before starting large projects that will change learning for students, school host parent information meetings and discuss changes at school board meetings. Community and parent input is used to consider perspectives that may not have been considered. Committees that include parents and community members are created and used as a program in implemented.

5. Staffing: More devices means there are more staff needed to manage them. An increase in tech support is an obvious increased need, but adding the instructional aspects means that new positions like Digital Learning Coaches and Instructional Designers are needed to get the most out of the invested technology.

6. Preparation: Effective online teaching requires training and practice. Training, coaching, and practice are required to move from a classroom-based instructional model to one that utilizes technology for students benefit. Learning to use the technology is only the first part of this transition. Professional Development in pedagogy and transitional instruction needs to be considered also.

7. Expectation: With districts willing to make the investment in 1:1 programs, there is an expectation that teachers will utilize the technology in their lessons. Teacher evaluation and support will consider increased digital learning use on walk-throughs and lesson planning. More technology systems will typically be used in paperwork and form submissions.

A great deal of time, staff, and money is invested into making an online learning environment work.

However, Education has been asked to make this pivot in a matter of days or weeks in the middle of economic and health uncertainty. Here in Texas, schools went on Spring Break only to learn midway through that they would not be returning to school for weeks. Within a short time, school was closed for the year.

It is my belief that schools approached remote learning with the best of intentions. They did not purposefully exclude students with special needs or plan to exacerbate inequity. They did the best they could in a short time with less than adequate guidance as so many executive orders were being handed out so quickly without any idea of what will come next. Some districts have admitted defeat and called for the end of 2019-20 school year.

What I hope and pray is that parents, students and community members will give schools a little bit of grace, that teachers will do their best to serve their students in this trying time, and that school administrators will spend time making a sustainable plan to address how best to meet everyone's needs in the event that school cannot be business as usual in 2020-21.

We are all in this together and must take care of each other.

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