During all the tumult of the last two years of schooling, from remote to hybrid to masked in-person, educators prioritized the social and emotional needs of students. A full 70 percent of schools now offer mental health programming, according to a recent survey from the American School District Panel and 20 percent of these schools say they added these services as a response to the pandemic disruptions. Shifting toward helping our students’ emotional well-being is vital and, in many cases, has shown extraordinary results. But we need to make sure we don’t forget the social and emotional health of district IT staff.
Think about how much stress we all felt especially at the beginning of the pandemic. Not only was there personal stress but schools went remote instantly. District and school IT staff had to not only set up 1:1 programs on the fly, but also find new remote learning software and create helpdesks for thousands of students.
It’s clear now that part of a well-thought digital strategy for the future includes wellbeing support for IT technicians and school support staff, too. For example, such support can come from tools that ease cumulative stressors by saving time, lightening workloads, improving communication, and simplifying or automating procedures. Embracing a digital strategy that runs right across all areas of the school ensures that every staff member can benefit from the advantages offered by technology.
I asked Nele Morrison, the technology director at Pittsburg Independent School District in Texas, to give additional insight about how they’ve managed through the pandemic. Even though some campuses in his 2,500-student district east of Dallas were 1:1 before the pandemic, none had a program allowing students to take computers home. In a matter of days, Morrison and his six-person IT team had to develop the logistical plan of a new 1:1 program that they quickly realized was going to be permanent.
Morrison said that picking the right software to help oversee the new programs they started lightened his staff’s load. His district used inventory management software to keep track of the district’s laptops. When the district went remote, it upgraded the apps it used for classroom management to allow for enhanced reporting and web conferencing features. Pittsburgh also used software that allowed the IT department to remotely control, diagnose, and fix Windows laptops and PCs.
No matter how much technology or management software in place, though, Morrison said in the end Pittsburg made remote, hybrid, and in-person learning work during the pandemic because of the quality of its IT staff.
I’m confident that what Morrison learned in Pittsburg is playing out across the country. There’s a bond created when a team of people go through a hard time together and what we’ve learned during this pandemic is that the social and emotional needs of a district needs to include their staff as well as students. Adding Nele’s insights to my 30-year history in edtech, here’s some thoughts about where we are from an IT perspective and what might be considered for the future.
Restate and revise district digital strategies. Schools have disaster plans, clear chains of command, and a format for backing up vital district data, but how did it go? Was the IT team able to handle the burden or were there gaps in the plan? Is the insurance sufficient for the devices? What about helpdesk policies?
Now is the time to work with IT staff on revising policies and procedures governing the district’s digital strategy. New computers, cameras, power supplies and other hardware were acquired quickly in a mad dash to supply students and teachers with what they needed. North Carolina’s Wake County school district spent $48 million on new hardware. Chicago Public Schools added 100,000 laptops in December 2021, in the expectation that students would be learning remotely when they returned from the winter break.
Aside from the benefits of simply having an updated digital plan, one bonus of this thorough review is that a revised and clearly articulated plan conveys a sense of order. Having order is one important way to help staff not feel overwhelmed by what they’ve just experienced.
Review the software tools in use to run the district’s technology. Implementing any new software always involves several layers of complexity, especially at large districts, but this might be the time to migrate to new software. Districts report a dramatic increase in help desk requests so consider investing in a knowledge base or project management software. The Project Management Institute has terrific training and resources for researching software to manage school technology, manage security threats, or run helpdesks. On the classroom side, there are cloud-based or network solutions for classroom management, portfolios, and gradebooks to name just a few.
It’s likely that teachers themselves grabbed software in the scramble to go online back in March 2020. Take a survey of their favorites and, if the district hasn’t purchased a license, these tools might be worth making available to all the schools On the other hand, if these tools don’t work for the whole district, it might be best to discuss with staff whether they want to keep using them.
Consider how to support new audiences. IT staff have always had to be network engineers while supporting teachers, and sometimes doing so without having formalized helpdesks. When the pandemic upended things, parents became support staff and tutors to their children. Now that parents have engaged with the school support staff, it is likely they will continue to stay engaged, which might mean adjusting for their increased presence and demands.
There is also the ever present worry that remote learning will return. Some districts are still offering online schools and plan to do so for the long term, and I expect we will see such offerings increase as districts realize the potential for managing these programs themselves rather than outsourcing.
Lastly, realize that there has been a shortage of well-qualified substitute teachers. In New Mexico, the National Guard has been called in to help. This is a good time to look into the support substitutes receive and consider if the existing plan is sufficient.
Recognize that it has been a stressful time. For everybody. Recognize that just like teachers, district IT staff might be tired or overwhelmed if for no other reason than the uncertainty they’ve faced. Personnel departments and sometimes the union has resources to help staff deal with this pressure. Something as basic as emphasizing work breaks, to training and reminders about mental health programs, let your staff know support is available to them – and that it’s okay to ask for help.
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