Classroom Technology

From Rescues to Relief, Principals’ Response to Harvey Aided By Ed Tech

By Benjamin Herold — September 06, 2017 7 min read
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Her cars were half-submerged in the driveway. The rising floodwaters had breached her front door. Betty Maynard, her husband, her disabled brother, her 85-year old mother, and the two family dogs had been forced to the second floor of their suburban Houston home. Emergency rescue crews weren’t responding to requests for help.

So Maynard, a Pre-K teacher at Duryea Elementary in the Cypress Fairbanks Independent School District, did the only thing she could think of.

She reached out to her principal.

“I told him we are flooded and can’t get out,” Maynard said. “He said, ‘I’m going to rescue you.’”

It would be several harrowing hours before Kenneth Henry— aided by his son, two strangers with a boat, and another teacher at Duryea—eventually made it to Maynard’s home. The dramatic scene that ensued was just one of countless examples of educators coming together as Hurricane Harvey and its aftermath devastated wide swaths of Texas and Louisiana. And like many other such moments, the rescue of Betty Maynard was aided by the apps and digital communications tools that have become commonplace in American schools.

Before Harvey hit, Henry had begun checking in on dozens of his staff members via an app called Remind 101.

During the storm, school districts throughout the region relied on social media to keep parents and the public informed.

And in the wake of the widespread flooding and damage that Harvey left behind, a Dallas-area principal used Facebook, Google, and a popular school-newsletter software to connect principals from as far away as Connecticut and New Jersey to Houston-area schools in dire need of supplies.

“These tools have allowed people to communicate and help each other as best they could in an incredibly stressful situation,” said Charlene Blohm, the founder of a public-relations and marketing firm that works with districts on technology and social media policy. “They’ve helped direct the groundswell of support for everyone in the affected areas.”

A dramatic rescue

Henry, the Duryea Elementary principal, says he’s not particularly tech-savvy.

“I’m not a big Facebooker,” he said. “My staff teases me about it.”

But some digital tools are increasingly essential to being a principal. Among them: apps such as Remind 101, which allows school leaders to send group-text messages directly to every staff member’s phone, rather than hoping they’ll see an email message or social-media post.

Typically, Henry said, he’ll use it to send reminders about meetings or notices about events.

That was the case just a few days earlier, when the Duryea team was going through a week of professional development and preparing for the opening of school.

But as Harvey gathered strength, Henry began transitioning into crisis-response mode. He used Remind 101 to request that all Duryea staff let him know if they were evacuating, where they were heading, and if they needed help.

“By the second day of heavy rain and wind, a lot of people were saying, ‘We’ve waited as long as we can, but we have to leave,’” Henry said.

He heard that one of his 5th grade teachers was getting ready to flee rising waters, but didn’t have a clear destination lined up. Henry drove his truck as close as he could, helped Robert Bugg and his wife carry their two toddlers and a few bags of clothing away from danger, and brought the entire family into his own home for several days.

Shortly afterwards, Maynard sounded her alarm.

Henry first tried to coordinate with a Duryea teacher who was out doing rescue operations in his kayak. But flooding on Highway 290 proved an insurmountable barrier.

So again, Henry got in his truck.

He got within three blocks of Maynard’s house. Then he had to leave his vehicle behind. The principal began slogging through knee-deep water. He tried to calm his fears about possible snakes.

By the grace of God, Henry said, he ran into two men from the Dallas-Fort Worth area who had brought their boat to Houston to assist with the rescue effort.

“I said, ‘I’ve got a family that needs help,’” the principal recalled. “They said, ‘Let’s go.’”

In Maynard’s yard, the strangers sought something they could moor their boat to. Maynard and her family were waving from a second story window. Henry jumped back into the water, now nearly to his chest.

Inside the home’s first floor, he said, it seemed everything but the sofa was floating.

Henry carried Maynard’s infirm mother out to the boat first, then the dogs, then what belongings Maynard’s family had been able to gather.

Her father’s ashes had to stay in the attic. She forgot to bring shoes. She remembered her Michael Kors handbag, stuffed with the family’s important papers. And her phone, which she used to shoot a video as the boat made it to safety.

Maynard later posted the video on Facebook, and a snapshot of the successful rescue taken by Henry made it on to Twitter.

“My hero,” Maynard said of her principal’s efforts on her behalf.

“I asked God to help me somehow, and He did.”

Principals helping principals, via Facebook

There’s a cliché that ed tech isn’t about the technology itself, but how and why you use it.

That’s certainly been the case in example after example of how educators have responded to Harvey.

Beyond helping to coordinate rescues, dozens of districts used Twitter and Facebook for crisis communications, sharing information and directing people to resources and offering guidance for those who wanted to help.

“In any kind of crisis situation, you want people to know you are a resource for the best, up-to-date information,” said Blohm, the educational public-relations expert. “There were people around the world trying to figure out what was happening in these parts of Texas and Louisiana, and districts did a great job sharing what they could in the moment.”

And now, as Harvey’s floodwaters slowly recede and the full extent of the damage caused by the storm becomes apparent, digital tools and social media are being used coordinate all manner of relief and recovery efforts.

One of the most powerful examples was started by Kristen Eriksen, the principal of Sunset Valley Elementary in the Keller school district, just north of Dallas-Fort Worth.

The same day that Principal Henry was rescuing Betty Maynard, Eriksen was sitting on her couch at home, multi-tasking.

As she drafted a weekly newsletter to her staff, she scrolled through Facebook and watched the increasingly frightening news coverage of what was happening 275 miles to the south.

“My mind just got set on what teachers and kids would have when they came back from the storm,” Eriksen said. “I thought, ‘What can I do?’”

She logged into a Facebook group she belongs to, called the Principals Leadership Group. Usually, it’s for sharing team-building ideas, instructional strategies, and tips on technology tools.

Eriksen posted a different kind of question:

What if we created an adopt-a-school program to help colleagues affected by Harvey?

Within an hour, she said, there were nearly 100 positive responses.

Eriksen knew what to do.

“I use Google for everything,” she said. “So I said, ‘let’s just make a Google Sheet with a public link so anyone can see and update it.”

Almost immediately, schools from around the country began offering help.

“Facebook and Twitter can sometimes be damaging, but this project gave us something that could unite us in helping one another,” said Sue Iwanicki, the principal and head of school at the Regional Multicultural Magnet School in New London, Conn.

Within a day, Iwanicki and Andrea Simmons, the head of the nearby Friendship School, another Connecticut magnet school, had been connected with the Houston Academy in Texas’s Aldine school district.

Principal Yvette Shelby-King outlined her school’s needs in the Google Sheet that Eriksen had created:

We have families/faculty who lost everything. Target & Wal-Mart gift cards are needed. We could use: toiletries: toothpaste, toothbrushes, soap, shampoo, combs/brushes, deodorant, feminine hygiene products, toilet paper, razors •Non-perishable food items, individually bagged snacks, bottled water, etc. • NEW (still in original packaging) undergarments, socks, t-shirts, shorts, jeans/pants, pajamas, shoes, school uniforms • air mattresses, pillows, blankets, sheets, towels • School supplies

The two Connecticut schools are now gathering those materials from the communities they serve, with the expectation that they will send supplies to Houston Academy early next week.

By Labor Day, Eriksen said, about 270 Harvey-impacted schools had been adopted. On top of her busy day job, Eriksen was spending hours each day serving as a one-woman distribution hub-and school-adoption-agency.

None of it would have been possible without the powerful-but-simple tools that allowed her to reach out directly and quickly to a national audience of like-minded educators, Eriksen said.

But what has been truly remarkable, Eriksen said, is how many school leaders around the country have been so eager to help.

“Education is a tough business,” she said. “But we’re there for one another.”

Photo: Betty Maynard’s flooded street from the boat used to rescue her family, provided courtesy of Kenneth Henry Jr.

An earlier version of this story used the incorrect last name for Andrea Simmons.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.