Jill Hobson had a plan for just about any emergency scenario.
As the Chief Technology Officer for Gainesville City Schools, Hobson knew exactly what to do in the event of an unexpected weather disaster or safety hazard. But a global pandemic was brand new territory for Hobson and all information technology employees at both Gainesville City and Hall County schools.
“There’s no template for this one,” she said. “There’s lots of things you prep for and plan for. You look at emergencies and how things have been handled in other disaster scenarios. But this one? This is not one where we’re able to learn from somebody else's experience.”
When schools were closed down in March in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19, IT teams were suddenly faced with the unprecedented task of bringing thousands of Hall County and Gainesville City students together virtually for classes while also helping out teachers with technical issues and providing digitally consumable content for the remainder of the school year.
“My colleagues around the metro Atlanta area and I started communicating with each other and saying ‘OK, what are you doing? What have you thought about? What are your top topics?,’” Hobson said. “‘What’s the plan?’”
IT departments for both Gainesville City and Hall County schools had already been experimenting with digital learning in recent years, so teachers for local school districts had experience with online teaching platforms — Google Classroom for Gainesville City Schools, and primarily Canvas for Hall County Schools.
Eddie Millwood, Director of Digital Convergence for Hall County Schools, said teachers have been familiarizing themselves with digital learning over the last five years, making the sudden transition to school from home much easier to manage on the technical side.
“This wasn’t initially a very big shift for us, because we have had quite a bit of experience delivering content in a digital format to our students,” Obviously this was extended to a longer period of time, but from that end of it, it was not terribly difficult.”
Still, the school districts faced plenty of logistical challenges that were difficult to overcome.
Lack of access to devices was one of the biggest initial concerns. Schools relied on teachers to find out which students did not have computers at home, and IT departments quickly began getting Chromebooks into the hands of those who needed them.
Internet connection was another issue for some students, so both school districts provided information to students and parents about potential community options for wifi access, and Gainesville City Schools even went as far as purchasing a handful of Kajeet MiFi devices to distribute to students in need.
“We also have a website available for parents and students to go to if they need any help or any resources for things like access or troubleshooting things with devices,” Millwood said. “I think that closed that loop pretty quickly with the access piece.”
Once the schools were relatively assured that no students were getting left out of digital classrooms, technology departments had to make sure teachers had all the support they needed when it came to teaching virtual lessons.
IT workers from both districts put an emphasis on communication, making sure all teachers were set up on Zoom and with screen sharing to streamline technical troubleshooting. Hobson said her and her team, which refers to itself as DoIT “because we get it done,” have made themselves available to anyone who needed help from the outset of school from home.
“From Day 1, we implemented what we call our office hours,” she said. “We have an online meeting that’s available to staff to come in. Have a morning one and an afternoon one every day just for folks to stop in and say ‘Hey, I’ve got a problem’ or ‘I want to know more, I want to learn something’ to get that kind of support.”
Hall County Schools have leaned on content and professional learning specialists to make sure teachers understand all the capabilities of digital learning platforms.
Laney Park, elementary content specialist for Hall County Schools, said she has been holding sessions with teachers daily, providing support with teaching platforms and giving advice on new and fresh ways to present content. The meetings have been both varied and frequent.
“We’ve even had sessions of teachers just sharing their stories, sharing what they’ve struggled with and what their successes have been,” Park said. “That was extremely beneficial, and we plan to continue doing that too, just to kind bounce ideas off each other. Because this is all new for everybody.”
Park said she has received glowing feedback on the sessions from teachers who never even considered what their digital options were until forced to by the closings.
The necessary inclusion of technology in learning could even have a positive effect on education when students return to physical classrooms, according to Park.
“I’m having teachers say things like ‘I’ve been teaching for 25 years and I’m just not that great with technology, but being able to go through all these professional learning sessions that we’ve been doing since we’ve been doing digital learning, I’m going to be a better teacher when I go back into the classroom,’” Park said. “It’s just been great to hear teachers say that.”
Millwood echoed Park’s sentiment, adding that a renewed focus on integrating technology into the classroom will be one of the few positives to take away from the school closings.
He believes that technology should not be separate from instruction, and that blended learning should be “just part of what we do.” Thanks to the quick and thorough actions of Gainesville City and Hall County schools’ IT departments, Millwood’s hopes are looking more and more like the reality of the future.
“I think we’re going to be better at the end of this from what we learn from it,” he said. “So that’s kind of the mindset we’re taking. We’re going to definitely go back to school when we return to our normal setting with a lot more tools in our toolbox than when we left.”