School Climate & Safety

How Houston Got Its Schools Back Online After the Hurricane

By Benjamin Herold — September 19, 2017 6 min read
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Lenny Schad has spent the past several years working to turn the 216,000-student Houston school district into a digital leader, setting a national example for how to manage the high-tech transformation of a large urban school system.

But as Hurricane Harvey pounded Houston and its schools last month, the most important step taken by the district’s IT department was decidedly low-tech, according to the district’s chief information technology officer.

The day before the storm hit, “we sent out an email reminding everyone to unplug all computer equipment and copiers and make sure everything was up off the floors,” Schad said in an interview with Education Week.

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“That really helped us.”

In recent weeks, hundreds of school systems throughout Texas, Florida, and other states have been ravaged by the high winds, extreme rains, and intense flooding that came with Harvey and another major storm, Irma. For many district leaders, the immediate focus was on ensuring the safety of staff, students, and the surrounding community. That has since evolved into damage assessments, repairs, and a mad rush to reopen school buildings.

School-technology leaders have been central to such efforts. Faced with widespread power outages, severe flooding, and an as-yet-undetermined number of displaced students and families, they’ve worked to keep communications systems operational, restore power and internet service, and make sure educators have access to the equipment, software, and networks they need to usher in a return to normalcy.

Houston ISD Chief Technology Officer Lenny Schad pose for a photograph in the HISD Data Center on Sept. 4, 2014.

From lesson-planning to record-keeping to meeting payroll, technology is at the heart of the modern K-12 enterprise, said Keith Krueger, the CEO of the Consortium for School Networking, the professional association for school CIOs and CTOs.

But even in a technology-driven world, he said, an ounce of prevention still beats a pound of cure.

“Once you’re in the middle of a crisis,” Krueger said, “it’s probably too late to do most of the things you should have done.”

Schools Going Dark

That was one of Lenny Schad’s worries as Harvey slammed into Houston.

He and other district leaders thought their disaster-preparedness plan was solid. But it had never been tested like this.

In the days leading up to the storm, Schad said, his IT team had done everything they could think of. They sent reminders to schools about unplugging equipment and getting it off the floor, hoping that would minimize damage from power surges and water intrusion. They made contact with their vendors, asking them to be ready to supply surplus routers, switches, and other key equipment that might get damaged.

But as Harvey dumped record amounts of rain on their city, there was little to do but monitor the district network, looking for signs of power outages.

Education Week’s reporters have looked in depth at schools’ efforts to rebound from the devastation caused by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma. See our coverage of districts’ attempts to provide shelter to families, and our reporting on teachers’ determination to use technology and social media to get students back on track.

Before long, Schad said, more than 80 of the district’s 284 campuses had gone dark.

And suddenly, he said, district technology officials were facing a set of circumstances they hadn’t fully anticipated.

Buildings needed to be inspected firsthand. Volunteers from the Houston tech community were lining up to help and offering to visit schools and plug equipment back in and see if they could connect to the HISD network.

But the district hadn’t pre-identified site-visit teams. It didn’t have clear protocols for what the teams should be looking for. And there wasn’t a clear system in place for how people on the ground should track what they found.

Andres Villagomez and Karen Romero clean up around the floors and studs at Thompson Intermediate School, part of Pasadena Independent School District. Many Houston area schools suffered some sort of damage from Hurricane Harvey.

Nor did HISD have on hand enough rubber boots, gloves, and surgical masks to distribute to inspection teams, many of whom would be navigating potentially hazardous environments.

And for proof of damage caused by the storm, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the district’s insurance company wanted date- and time-stamped photos. But digital cameras and batteries were also in short supply.

Then there was the daunting reality facing all of Houston.

“The city was underwater,” Schad said.

“It was really the logistics of trying to navigate the city that posed the biggest challenge.”

Key Player in Houston’s Recovery

Almost a month later, Schad and his team still have their hands full.

One big issue: Thousands of Houston students, displaced from their homes and neighborhood schools, are showing up to enroll at HISD schools they weren’t expected to attend prior to the storm. Schad’s team has been working to make sure those students are able to get the supports they need, regardless of where they enroll. That means making sure they get flagged in the district’s student-management systems as having been affected by Harvey. But that has required quickly training administrative staff at hundreds of schools on new records-management protocols.

Five HISD campuses will also be out of commission for the foreseeable future. Students and staff are being relocated into vacant district buildings. Schad’s team is busy helping to reinvigorate those facilities, running fiber-optic cable, installing wireless access points, and procuring computers and phone systems.

Despite all the obstacles, though, HISD has been at the fore of Houston’s rapid recovery. Most of the city’s schools opened on Sept. 11, little more than two weeks after Harvey first hit. Another group of schools welcomed students back Monday, and the remainder will open Sept. 25.

HISD Superintendent Richard Carranza walks through a classroom damaged by floodwaters at A.G. Hilliard Elementary School in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey on Sept. 2, in Houston.

In most cases, Schad said, the district’s networks are already functioning as if nothing happened, and most of the 60,000-plus laptops the HISD has purchased for students went unscathed.

Vendors have been quick to resupply HISD with replacements for damaged gear—expenses that Houston schools are counting on insurance or FEMA to cover.

And because the district had already moved so many of its administrative and instructional operations to the cloud, Schad said, employees at all levels of the organization have been able to help speed the recovery along, Teachers, for example, haven’t needed to physically connect to the district’s network in order to alter lesson plans, shift their instructional timelines, and otherwise prepare for the start of this most unusual school year.

Everything may not have gone as smoothly as he would have liked, Schad said. But things have gotten done, often with remarkable speed.

“To be back as quick as we were, that was a huge lift for everybody,” he said.

Value of Preparation

Sheryl Abshire, the chief technology officer for the Calcasieu Parish schools in southwestern Louisiana, about two hours east of Houston, agreed that getting schools opened quickly is a key part of any natural-disaster recovery effort.

Abshire recalled what it was like a dozen years ago, when her district was hit by the full force of Hurricane Rita.

“We were in panic mode,” she said. “Our entire region was shut down for over 30 days.”

Abshire said Calcasieu Parish stayed connected after the storm because it had prepared for such a scenario. She had insisted that much of the district’s fiber-optic network be buried underground, and she had “bitten the bullet” financially and sprung for a natural-gas powered generator.

Still, Abshire said, she and her husband found themselves driving all over Louisiana, hand delivering paper paychecks to staff that had been displaced by the storm.

“People now understand you’ve got to be able to keep economic engines like school districts going when there’s a natural disaster,” she said.

This time around, Abshire and others agree, the disruptions throughout the region have been comparatively minimal, in part due to technology. Preparation overall is also vastly improved. Calcasieu Parish even has standing contracts with disaster-recovery firms, so it doesn’t have to issue RFPs or award bids in the midst of a crisis.

CoSN is also trying to help, said Krueger, the group’s CEO.

In recent years, he said, the group has issued briefs and checklists for school-technology officials on disaster preparation. And in the wake of Harvey and Irma, CoSN also issued a guide on dealing with water damage.

“These aren’t just the moments to send thoughts and prayers and contributions,” Krueger said. “They’re also the moment when everyone should be looking at how prepared they for an emergency.”

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