It seems hard to believe, but the pandemic in the U.S. started three years ago. With all the changes COVID-19 brought to schools, perhaps the one that most people forget is how the virus altered the delivery of education.
While everyone is happy remote learning and hybrid models are pretty much over, it isn’t accurate to say education has returned to what was “normal,” pre-pandemic instruction.
The main reason school looks different is that districts bought a heap of specialized technology just to keep instruction alive during those three years. A 2022 survey by the Consortium for School Networking shows that more than 80 percent of U.S. schools now have a device for each K-12 student. That’s way up from pre-pandemic numbers, where about two of three high schools and middle schools were one-to-one and less than half of elementary schools had a device for each student. And that’s only counting student devices–not the needed network improvements, teacher training, or the other myriad purchases required to create a robust network both in schools and at students’ homes.
While this outlay for technology resets the bar of what is expected for schools, now and going forward, it also brings up some powerful questions. Can schools afford to use all the new technology they have? More importantly, however, can they afford to maintain all this equipment in the long term?
A recent McKinsey survey reports that districts still have $130 billion in unspent ESSER funds to allocate in the next three budget cycles. Slightly more than half of the 260 district officials surveyed said “they were struggling to assemble the internal strategic-planning and operational capacity to make and execute spending decisions in the face of competing priorities and ongoing disruptions.” These same officials expect IT services costs to rise between 6 percent and 8 percent over the next three years.
Because these ESSER funds have to be spent in the next three years, and we aren’t likely to see such largesse from the federal government again, it is vital that officials use these funds to not only plan for today but to ensure that their district’s technology plan works long term.
Usually, it’s easy for me to give districts advice on how to buy, use, and sustain tech programs. By drawing on my 30 years of experience in education, I typically counsel schools to plan carefully for new technology, considering factors from the cost of equipment to teachers’ training to the long-term need for upkeep and replacement – technology sustainability. In the face of ESSER funding requirements, this advice doesn’t suffice right now. Schools were in emergency mode during the pandemic and made emergency decisions without the benefit of having foresight into what the future would be. Now the challenge is different.
Consequently, school leaders today have to consider a new set of issues—how to best use the technology they have on hand, some of which was purchased without being part of a long-term plan. And while I have long been a proponent for decisions based on a stable, long-term technology plan rather than quick purchases and a fast-fix mentality, there was little choice early in the pandemic. We are at the stage now where the tenets for technology planning that occurs in a normal year need to be adjusted to get the most out of what schools already have.
Here are five guidelines to maximize the use of existing technology in this funding cycle while also planning for the future:
1. Take stock: The first step is to get an accurate picture of what is happening in your schools now. That means talking with teachers, students, and even parents to see how your technology is actually being used, rather than the way you think it’s being used. Be careful. With the delivery of education still changing, get an accurate picture of what is occurring in classrooms and schools right now, not last year or even three years ago.
2. Restate goals: Chances are your district or school already has its learning outcomes in place. Given the hardships of the past three years, revisit these goals to make sure they still meet student needs. Do you need to retrench to make sure that skills students missed then are now included in the new system? Do you have to double down on social-emotional learning – as an example?
3. Collaborate: This calls for another round of conversations with teachers, students, and parents. This isn’t something to fear; given the changed relationship between parents and schools from the last three years, consider this as a vital step to make sure your schools can not only clearly communicate their goals for students, but also hear parents’ concerns. Furthermore, if students see relevancy between their studies and what they need to succeed in college or in a job, they’ll pay better attention.
4. Adapt: Simply put, if you do steps 1-3 correctly, you should have a lot of new information to fold into your schools’ technology plans. This key step is the payoff for all the work already completed. But remember, just altering plans isn’t enough, clearly communicate these changes (and reasons) to staff, students, and the community.
5. Plan for replacement: When all this is done, consider long-term goals. Having a clear plan and knowing how your district is using the technology it has will help you know the cost to keep devices and wireless systems functioning. This helps in deciding what will need replacement and what won’t, saving your district from wasting money in the future. Remember, the unexpected extra expense of educating students during the last three years was unavoidable, but that doesn’t mean those same costs will carry over to future years. These are different times.
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