Whatever it takes: How this district pivoted with the pandemic

A tech director discusses how his 1-to-1 district did whatever it could to ensure students had access to devices and hotspots—and what the fall might hold

When speaking with Andrew Wallace, Director of Technology, South Portland Maine Schools, two classic marketing slogans come to mind: “Think Different” and “Just Do It.”

Whether it is getting Chromebooks and hotspots to students in need, supporting faculty in the move to remote learning, or just giving students a sense of comfort, he and his district, which includes a pre-k center, five elementary schools, two middle schools, and South Portland High School, are making up new rules as they go along in this pandemic era. Below are some highlights.

Related content: How this district became closer by being apart

eSN: Maine has always been at the forefront of the 1-to-1 movement so can we assume that the transition to remote wasn’t too painful?

AW: We’ve been doing 1-to-1 in Maine since 2003 at a couple of grade levels. And most school districts in Maine expanded it upward from grades seven through 12. And then a lot of them are now slowly creeping down through the elementary schools. So in my district, we’ve been 1-to-1 with iPads, grades six through 12 since the iPad came out—we were one of the first iPad 1-to-1 schools. And then we have been backfilling with Chromebooks that stay in the classroom. So we felt pretty good.

We did have a sort of a philosophy that we weren’t doing 1-to-1 at grades pre-k to two. We just weren’t sure that that was educationally appropriate. Well, I can assure you, we are revisiting our thinking around that now just on necessity. And also because we are seeing the ability of people to stay engaged and kids to safely and responsibly use technology, no matter what their age is. So that’s been kind of eye-opening and maybe it’s changed the way I will approach our youngest students with technology.

eSN: Having a remote setup for a couple of months versus what before might have been a couple of snow days has taken some creative maneuvers, right? Talk a little bit about how you are working to maintain devices and other nitty gritty aspects of the setup.

AW: We took a two-pronged approach. One is we engaged our transportation office to help us deliver the devices to the families or the hotspots to the families that needed them. At first, I was driving around in neighborhoods and calling people on the phone and they wouldn’t recognize my number. We just spent a lot of time waiting for people or they weren’t home. So we asked ourselves, “Who’s really good at this sort of stuff?” And we looked at our transportation department, who has a whole dispatch office. And everybody trusts the school bus. They don’t trust my crummy little sedan!

Now we’ll drive into a neighborhood, the dispatch will call, and I head to the family and say, “Hey, can we drop this off?” We would leave it out on their front yard or on their porch. So we keep that social distance thing and families have the technology they need. I thought it was great as the transportation folks were not as busy because they’re not driving kids around. We had a goal of keeping as many of our employees fully employed as possible. And I think we saw 100% of that happened because we found creative ways to get people to work.

Another thing we did was we found these old gym lockers and we put them in against the wall outside of my office. And we have a camera there—I don’t even know if it works—but it’s a deterrent anyway. And what we did was we bought combination locks. And if someone needed a new device or they wanted to swap a device, we didn’t spend all this time trying to troubleshoot over the phone because that’s just not effective. And we didn’t want to be interfacing with people so much. So now, if you want a new iPad, we’ll put an iPad in a locker, give the parent the combination and they can come and get it, whatever they want, which is really cool because some of our families work third shift and some of our families have a hard time with translation because we have, I think, 42 languages spoken in our district.

eSN: How are you preparing teachers for the fall and what looks like to be at best a blended learning environment?

AW: We have just begun offering online a synchronous and asynchronous 10-hour course for all of our teachers and administrators, which is based around designing for online learning. The pillars of it—student agency, navigation, the rule of teacher, assessment—those are critical, valuable teaching skills and instructional skills that we would want our teachers to have anyway.

I’m also trying to figure out what are the great things we’re doing now that we will retain as we go forward, regardless of what physical environment we’re in, where we’re learning from, where we’re teaching from. You think about folks who’ve been talking about the flipped classroom model for a long time. Now more than ever, whenever we get a chance to be with our students, we are going to cherish that time. How do we go deeper on the stuff that really requires me as an educator to be there with you?

So I do think we’re going to see more in-depth collaboration, project based learning, experiential learning. Then there’s the lecture stuff and the pre-loading that we can do more independently that doesn’t require being there in person with you. I’m just going to see a lot of that being sort of the homework, so to speak. And so those champions of the flipped classroom, are in many ways going to be what really puts that over the top.

But, you know, what’s amazing is I’m just seeing, people just go to the bell and they’re just learning new things and it is just amazing. Teachers love a challenge and they are stepping up. So I’m just really impressed with that.

Coming next week: A conversation with Eileen Belastock, Director of Academic Technology, Mount Greylock Regional School District in Massachusetts. Does your district have ideas to share? Send them to KevinHogan@eschoolmedia.com.

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