School & District Management

Rapid Deployment of Remote Learning: Lessons From 4 Districts

By David Saleh Rauf — March 19, 2020 8 min read
Austin schools foreman Roland Garcia, right, drills holes in a school bus as Daniel Webb steps down from the engine during installation of WiFi technologies on a school bus. The district is installing WiFi on all school buses so they can be used as wireless hotspots for students during extended school closures. The crew has installed 20 units since Monday and has more than 100 to go at this location.
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As the coronavirus crisis continues to unfold and schools face the likelihood of extended closures measured in months not weeks, chief technology officers at districts across the country are scrambling to prepare and roll out e-learning programs.

It amounts to an unprecedented test of digital preparedness for the country’s school districts. Most are facing a shortfall of available devices and Wi-Fi accessibility for every student and have yet to come up with an equitable way to serve special needs students through online instruction.

Forty one percent of school leaders said they couldn’t provide remote or e-learning activities to every student in their district for even one day, according to data from a new Education Week survey that included 420 principals and 745 other district leaders. Only 22 percent said they could make those opportunities available “as long as we needed to.”

However, a new IT survey from the Consortium for School Networking, or CoSN, a nonprofit membership organization for K-12 technology leaders, indicates that school districts are making digital progress. Nearly half of districts that responded have one device available for every student, and a quarter of districts support two devices per student, according to preliminary data released ahead of the full report.

The survey highlighted broadband accessibility during the coronavirus outbreak as an issue that will require extra ingenuity to overcome, given that community locations such as libraries and businesses typically serve as Wi-Fi hotspots for low-income or rural students and “may be temporarily unworkable … to implement social distancing protocols.”

Keith Krueger, the CEO of CoSN, said many districts are prepared to deliver e-learning experiences now and some are “not at all.”

“At this moment there are more school districts more ready than they ever have been to do online learning for all of their kids, at least from a technical perspective,” he said. “But they’re not as ready on the teaching and learning side.”

With little and sometimes confusing federal guidance for how schools should provide e-learning during the coronavirus-related school closures, a patchwork of approaches has spawned: Some school districts have virtual assignments and video conferencing up and running. Some are still figuring things out, creating online lesson plans with design teams and outfitting school buses with Wi-Fi. And others have partnered with local PBS affiliates to broadcast learning activities on the television.

Here’s a look at how chief technology officers from four districts are assessing what technologies they have, planning for what they need, and putting together remote learning strategies and tactics.

The Metropolitan School District of Wayne Township, Ind.: ‘Really a Challenge to Scale Up’

CTO Pete Just said his 17,000-student district began offering “blended virtual offerings” to students in grades 6-12 on Monday after returning from spring break. District officials started planning for online class contingencies two weeks ago, he said, using the time to plan for everything from how to track attendance to building out instructional design. The district has a deep background in e-learning, launching the state’s first online school in 1999.

“But even for a sophisticated district like us, it’s really a challenge to scale up,” Just said. “We wish we could be better prepared.”

See Also: Coronavirus and Schools

Students in kindergarten to 5th grade will rely on pencil-and-paper assignments, while students in grades 6-12 will use about 12,500 district-issued Chromebooks to handle classwork. (One high school in the district has students use their own personal devices in school, a strategy known as BYOD). The district gave teachers the discretion for how to teach the virtual classwork, and will use Google Classroom tools for video and chat.

Just said gaps in broadband accessibility have largely been bridged for the district’s high school students through a partnership with Sprint, which offered free mobile Wi-Fi hotspot devices. But about 11 percent of high school students in the district still lack access, he said.

“The demand has dropped and generally leveled off,” he said. “We’re still seeing statistics that show some don’t have access at home. Apparently, they’re finding a way to cope with that.”

Beaverton School District, Ore.: ‘High Tech and Low Tech’

CTO Steve Langford said his district has put together a mix of “high tech and low tech” resources that parents can use with students. Teachers, he said, are not engaging in “direct instruction.”

“It’s less worksheet driven and more curating resources that already exist,” he said.

Some of the district’s students will have access to online tools for learning such as Seesaw and Dreambox. But Langford said state officials recommended against a wholesale shift to online classes unless schools could meet a list of criteria that included providing equitable services.

“We can’t ensure all students would be equitably served in an e-learning scenario,” he said of the 41,000-student district. “I believe some districts might have started down that road, but the counsel from the (Oregon) department of education said this is not the time to implement an e-learning system and build it from the ground up.”

If school closures are extended and future lesson plans rely more on computers and connectivity, Langford said the district could be “device restrained” for elementary school students. According to the CoSN survey, only 43 percent of elementary schools can provide a device for every student.

“We might have to go into schools, unwire computers from carts and start checking out those computers to students,” he said, noting the district has 15,000 elementary students. “Preparing the computers, checking them, managing the whole process, it’s a big undertaking. But we’re talking about that right now.”

In terms of broadband access for students, Langford said: “Right now the demand exceeds supply.”

Juvenal Landeros takes a break after applying an anti-microbal coating to the interior of school buses. The coating is applied after a thorough cleaning and will last 30 days before it needs to be reapplied.

Austin Independent School District, Texas: ‘Elementary [Students] the Biggest Challenge for Devices’

Classes are set to resume on April 3, and CTO Kevin Schwartz said district officials are racing to put in place the foundation for a remote learning environment. That includes installing Wi-Fi connectivity on more than 500 school buses, assessing device inventory and working to put the e-learning program in place.

“I feel good about this in some ways. I feel worried about this in some other ways,” he said. “Kids need to be re-engaged in learning on April 3, and from this time now until then is when we are getting teachers ready to do that work.”

The 81,000-student district currently provides a Chromebook for every student in grades 8-12, and is doing an inventory assessment to see how many more students may need devices. Schwartz said the district has 10,000 computers that students don’t currently take home and a shipment of 6,000 devices on its way. That, he said, would provide a 1-to-1 ratio through middle school and high school.

Roland Garcia checks the hotspot signal in an Austin school bus after installation of WiFi.

“That leaves elementary as the biggest challenge for devices,” he said, noting that lesson plans for those grade levels would be paper and pencil. “I don’t see us at this time offering a traditional district computer to every family.”

The district is also benefitting from a grant from Kajeet, a former cellphone company that now works to close the “digital divide” by providing school districts with connectivity tools, such as outfitting buses with Wi-Fi. Those buses will be deployed to low-income neighborhoods to serve as mobile hotspots, said Schwartz.

‘We’re doing an assessment now to figure out where we can get the most benefit from these buses,” he said.

Prince George’s County Public Schools, Md.: ‘We Would Just Have to Get Very Creative’

Chief technology officer Lisa Spencer said her district is currently printing instructional packets and making available limited online resources for students. Schools in Maryland have been closed until March 27, but state officials have signaled that is likely to be extended. If that happens, Spencer said more resources would have to be devoted to e-learning for the 136,000-student district.

‘If classes are cancelled for the rest of the school year, we would be in a situation where packets would not cut it,” she said. “Making millions of copies is a bit much.”

Spencer described the plan for now as a combination of blended learning with “a lot of project-based activities.” Some teachers are currently using Google Classroom for online classwork.

“Unfortunately it was not a mandate so not all our teachers have it,” she said. “I’m hoping we’re able to implement Google Classroom throughout the district and get some information and lessons designed to be implemented for all grade levels.”

Implementing a widespread e-learning program could be even more difficult, though, when considering the lack of available devices. Spencer said the district would need about 50,000 computers if the need arose to provide for every student in grades 3-12. Only two of the district’s 208 schools currently equip students with computers to use at home.

“I don’t see us being able to make that take-home device plan work at this point in time,” she said.

Aside from device shortage, broadband accessibility is also an issue. The district did not take advantage of an opportunity to partner with Kajeet for Wi-Fi-enabled school buses, Spencer said, and officials had planned for libraries to provide connectivity for students in a situation like this. Without those community solutions available, Spencer said district officials will have to find new ways to deliver video-based learning instructions, and that could include uploading short videos to a YouTube page.

“Even though our students may not have a home device, most will have access to a smartphone where they can watch a short clip,” she said. “We would just have to get very creative, and that’s not a bad thing.”


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