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Despite COVID's abrupt impact on education, educators have met--and continue to meet--its challenges head-on with innovative solutions

How two districts keep pivoting as COVID evolves


Despite COVID's abrupt impact on education, educators have met--and continue to meet--its challenges head-on with innovative solutions

COVID changed education–there’s no disputing this fact. Some changes were major and immediate, while others were gradual as educators figured out how to make virtual and hybrid learning work for students, families, and school staff.

During CoSN’s virtual 2021 conference, two school district administrators shared the lessons they’ve learned–and continue to learn–during the COVID pandemic.

Moderated by Tara Anderson, Business Development Manager at Amazon Web Services (AWS), Steve Langford, CIO of Beaverton ISD, and Cynthia Hansen, System Administrator at Northside ISD, discussed their experiences and their vision of where education may head post-COVID.

What is one thing you did in 2020 that you never thought you’d be able to achieve?

Langford: There are so many things about the pandemic that could be top-of-mind for us. One of the things that we thought was impossible prior to 2020 was supporting students remotely. For years we were talking about how to build out that remote structure, and for years we heard it wasn’t possible with the constraints and resources we had. Literally within about 4-5 days, we went from concept to fully-online for a student support system. It was messy, because it was in 5 days, but it really was an example of where the pandemic forced us out of old thinking around constraints. We moved from “it’s not possible” to “OK, it’s not possible, but how are we going to do it anyway?”

Hansen: The one thing we never thought we’d have to do is virtual learning, virtual teaching, remote work, and supporting students at home. We had to get out the devices to [students and teachers], and we had to come up with an entirely different support model because our previous support model no longer functioned.

Describe the solutions that helped you pivot and adjust.

Hansen: In supporting all the students, we had 120 schools, and pre-COVID, three were 1:1 – a middle school, a high school, and a magnet school were already 1:1. First we had to get out the devices to students and parents, then we had to implement a way of supporting it that was agile and able to scale without bringing staff into offices. We came up with a parent-student hotline so we could support the mobile devices and got students and parents to schedule appointments for repairs, password resets, and things like that. We implemented AWS Connect.

Langford: So many things got turned upside down. In Oregon, we had staff in the building one day last March, and within 24 hours we had to transition 40,000 students to remote learning. There were a lot of things we had to look at and say, “All right, how do we move very, very quickly?” We had CTE teahers teaching specialized programs on school computers. That that content was hard to reimagine in a remote environment because the machines with the specialized programs were in the schools. [We looked at] ways to make that accessible to our students [and settled on] AWS Outstream–it was great because again, in a pre-COVID world, we would have probably said, “OK, we need months to test this, etc.” COVID challenged the way we think because we didn’t have that time. Weeks became days, days became minutes for us, just like all of you. So we had to move very qiuckly and Outstream, for us, was a great solution we onboarded and deployed in times we couldn’t even imagine, and it’s worked for us.

Reflecting back on things you did, has the ability to be flexible allowed you to grow and continue to innovate, even after COVID?

Langford: Absolutely. I think there’s no way that the events of the last year, for any of us–there’s no way that getting back to “what was” is on the table. We have fundamentally changed education more in this last year than maybe in the 50 years prior, with the idea that students are learning remotely, people are working form anywhere. This idea of flexibility and scalability has to be one that’s just in our toolkit moving forward. We can’t–and shouldn’t–be in a rush to go back to anything, because it didn’t serve our students well and in some instances it didn’t serve our staff well or allow them to be as creative as possible. For us, we are talking about it, we’re working with staff in the IT department around the future of work, what does this look like, and what we can learn.

How do we faciliate students who will always choose to learn virtually?

Langford: We had to launch a virtual school. And some of our students are thriving. That’s something we don’t want to take away; we don’t want to move students back to where they’re not thriving. It’s a chance for us to examine what is working and pull that forward and not lose it.

Do print textbooks still have a place going forward?

Langford: Did they have a place in the past? Interesting question. One of the powers of digital curriculum is that it can evolve and adapt. I think that is a good question, a tough question–the answer is probably a “Yes, and…” I think we need, as school system leaders, to unpack what’s happening at this time and resist the idea that we’re going to move backwards into anything. From this time of stress and pandemic, we can emerge with something better than we had for students. Content and curriculum are just as important as the teacher and technologies that underpin it all.

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Laura Ascione

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