A district superintendent details how his leadership team used the pandemic to expand learning opportunities for all students.

Why districts need to think creatively–inside the box

A district superintendent details how his leadership team used the pandemic to expand learning opportunities for all students

Scott Bailey, Superintendent for Desert Sands Unified School District (CA), didn’t let the pandemic get in the way of his team’s plans. Instead, he used the disruptions as an opportunity to accelerate.

In this episode of Getting There: Innovations in Education, Scott breaks down his work to innovate within the confines of a public institution. The district primarily serves five communities in the central Coachella Valley: Bermuda Dunes, Indian Wells, Indio, La Quinta, and Palm Desert. Students from other areas of the desert also take advantage of the quality education provided by our schools.

More than 27,000 students attend 34 schools in the district including traditional high schools, alternative high schools, middle schools, elementary schools, and 16 preschools, including a federally funded Head Start program. Two elementary schools currently offer full dual immersion in English/Spanish to kindergarteners and first graders.

(The following has been edited for clarity.)

eSN: Over the course of this year, a number of districts said they intend to keep a remote learning option—maybe a virtual academy sort of thing. While other districts have the intention to outfit classrooms with flat screens and document cameras, and to still have a hybrid option. Where do you see your district in the midst of all those different opportunities?

SB: I can tell you where I want to be–and that is exactly as you stated–to offer options to parents and students. We learned through this pandemic of forced transformation, so to speak, that distance learning actually worked fairly well for a percentage of our staff, and it worked fairly well for a percentage of students and families.

So looking into the future, I would like to offer a virtual option for parents and aligned staff resources accordingly. However, we need to think creatively inside the box, and that box is defined by law and regulation and policy. On that note, we’re currently monitoring activity at the legislative level, because we know that we’re getting signals that our flexibility for a full virtual option may be governed. We’re closely monitoring that to see what the boundaries of the box will be, and then we will react to those boundaries in a creative fashion.

eSN: Any new techniques discovered during the pandemic process?

SB: I wouldn’t say that we actually employed anything new to a large degree, but I would say that we accelerated some of the current programs and strategies that were already in place. If anything, we accelerated our technology plan to a degree because we had additional funds that were applicable for those expenses. We just happened to have finished [a funding grant], which allowed equitable connectivity through district owned devices for our 27,000 students pre-pandemic. So that served us well–a great launching point for us to move the technology plan ahead, which included the delivery of large format displays in every classroom, as well as cameras, across the district, to 34 schools. On top of that, we upgraded our audio systems in those classrooms to be state of the art. So we’ve accelerated what we thought was going to take a few years to complete in one year, largely because we needed to do it and we had the money to do it.

eSN: Talk a little bit about your recommendations for other districts to get themselves in to solve the rural broadband access puzzle.

SB: I’ll be the first to say there’s no one size fits all. I’ve served in various states and districts and they all come with their unique circumstances. One of the usual inhibiting factors is line of sight communications on the ground. In our case, we were able to actually retrofit our old microwave towers on specific school buildings throughout the district’s 752 square miles of attendance zone. So we had adequate broadband coverage throughout that entire attendance zone. So basically if you think about a heat map, we had some cold spots, some hotspots, some, you know, lukewarm spots.

So we retrofitted and fed the broadband through those towers. So that filled in the gap and allowed for equitable access. And yes, you’re absolutely right–when we had to do a hard shutdown we had a hard learning curve on how to make that opportunity as robust as possible. We had tech tents where people could swing through drive-ins and get their Chromebooks repaired or replaced immediately, checking out devices as needed by specific students and their families. So yeah, we had to reinvent ourselves quickly, even though we had the foundational elements to be successful in closing the digital divide.

eSN: Even as things remain uncertain when it comes to returning to “normal,” what are you best-case scenarios? How significantly different do you see your district, uh, being at that time?

SB: Absolutely–Well, you know, perfect picture rose colored glasses. I fully plan on a full five day per week instructional model with an option, whatever that option may look like at this point, reading the tea leaves on legislation in California, for independent study. That’s exactly where we would be—offering a robust and social program in person and an option for independent study under whatever we will be allowed to do at that time. We have grown a lot– food service, for example. Since the hard shut, I think we’ve prepared and served over 6 million meals. It’s amazing. We’ve also learned some tricks that allowed better service and streamlined operations that I’m sure they will, they will move forward. Certainly, our teachers and staff have been pushed to think creatively inside the box and they will keep bringing those strategies into their instructional repertoire as well. So again, employing those things that worked, although it was forced and rethinking or purging those things that we no longer see as necessary or beneficial and our charge to deliver a quality public education.

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