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eSN Editor-at-Large Kevin Hogan, interviews Hero Awards nominee Kelly Goodman of Florida Virtual School and Jim McClurkin of SAP Concur.

How 3 past Hero Awards winners navigated COVID


In its second year, the eSchool News Hero Awards Program honors the exceptional efforts of schools and districts across the U.S. as education forges ahead in a global pandemic

The eSchool News K-12 Hero Awards program, sponsored by JAR Systems and SAP Concur, has returned for 2022 and recognizes the dedicated efforts of education professionals across K-12 departments, including IT, curriculum, instruction and administration.  The nomination period runs from June 27 – September 1, 2022.

“The great education beta test brought on by the pandemic has resulted in discoveries and innovations across education — from distance learning and closing the digital divide, to addressing the need for diversity, equity, and inclusion in schools, and so much more,” said Kevin Hogan, eSN’s editor-at-large. “I’d like to encourage everyone to participate in this year’s Hero Awards, so your real-life challenges and successes can be celebrated and shared with the education community.”

As nominations come in from across the country, let’s take a look at last year’s winners and the amazing efforts they put in to keep learning accessible for students, teachers, and staff during an unprecedented global pandemic.

San Diego Unified School District

San Diego Unified School District‘s Instructional Technology Department was nicknamed the “First Responders” due to its proactive approach to COVID-19. From showing teachers how innovative technology could help improve learning outcomes to ramping up workshops geared toward preparing educators to teach online, this small but mighty team of six went above and beyond to make an impact during unprecedented times.

“Because of everything we did learn during our shutdown and our online learning, our district is transitioning to a one-to-one district, where students will get a device in second grade,” said Julie Garcia, the district’s Director of Instructional Technology, in a podcast with Hogan. That’s their device for second through fifth grade, then another device for six through eight and another device in ninth grade for ninth through 12th. So we’ll continue a lot of these strategies that we learned.”

The district also learned a lot about student-centered learning.

“So a big shift was, ‘If I’m sitting on Zoom and I’m going to talk at you for an hour, I am not going to have your engagement.’ So teachers had to explore different ways of releasing, releasing that responsibility to the students. And you don’t just say, ‘Okay, you’re in charge now, right?’ That comes down to lesson design and it comes down to using appropriate tools. So that was a big shift that we are continuing to work on, especially as we come back into the classroom.

“We learned so much about checking in on understanding about students, empowering themselves to be in charge of their own learning students, creating goals for themselves. So I personally feel like our takeaways are–how can we put learning in the hands of students, how can we connect students better with their peers and with the teacher?”

Brevard Public Schools

In the thick of the pandemic, on an evening in October 2020, Florida’s Brevard Public Schools began experiencing the onset of a ransomware attack. IT Director Barrett Puschus immediately called his team to action, waking many of them up, so they could shut down the district’s entire system. After identifying that the attack was enabled by phishing, Puschus worked across the district of 74,000 students and nearly 10,000 staff to tighten security protocols and prevent another incident.

Part of learning how to manage and avoid cyber threats is talking about them, Puschus told eSchool News.

“As far as talking about it, I believe we can’t succeed in isolation and we shouldn’t fail in isolation. So this is kind of a tale of both. We were notified of the event and we jumped on it and we kicked him out. We got him out before the ransom happened, but it really opened our eyes to our vulnerability—how easy it was for them to get in.”

Getting out in front of a threat in time is key.

“They were in our system for probably 45-60 days before we knew anything. Thankfully we found out about it and got them out ahead of time. We weren’t one of the stories where we were ransomed and had to restore from backups or anything like that. Thank goodness.”

Navajo Preparatory School

When COVID-19 forced Navajo Preparatory School to shut its doors in March 2020, the entire technology department quickly mobilized to ensure learning continuity in a completely virtual environment. This proved especially challenging as its student population spans the whole Navajo reservation, including some of the most rural areas of New Mexico, Utah, and Arizona.

In traveling to students’ homes to disperse Wi-Fi hotspots, faculty quickly became aware of the challenges students faced. To support students, NPS would use school buses equipped with Wi-Fi to run weekly routes to deliver a week’s worth of dry food as well as art supplies, books, laptops, and other educational materials.

“Our campus network extended all the way into Arizona and three other states. So all the students had their hotspots and their laptops at home, of course. And you know, the kids really helped a lot. They really did all they could to try to meet us halfway, to try to get through it, to finish up that school year,” said Sean C. Bekis, the school’s Network Administrator, in a conversation with eSN.

“Some kids were going on top of their houses just to get a cellular signal with those hotspots, just to download emails, just to upload their homework. Or they would drive out to the dirt road where the highway actually is to try to find that signal where they could send an email or download a message or whatever they needed to do for school. We still had some students where we had to send out flash drives like back to the old Sneakernet days. There were just some situations where we couldn’t push software.”

Many of these pandemic fixes became permanent, Bekis said.

“We’ve installed video conference equipment in all of our teacher’s classrooms on campus. So they’re all able to pull up how HD video—there are microphones, arrays, nice speakers. So the students that are remote can hear and see the classroom, you know, just like if they’re, if they’re there, so all that stuff’s all ready to go. And I’m pretty sure we’re still going to keep it. We gave out all the same hot to the students that they had last year. So they have them available for all the remote stuff. Even if they’re on-campus or if they’re a residential student here, we still made sure they have it available to communities just in case for this year. But I think going forward we’ll probably for sure still have that, make it available for them, so that they’re always connected now.”

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