Kentucky School Advocate
By Keith Look
With more days of the pandemic behind us than ahead, districts are beginning to consider schooling beyond completion of the 2020-21 school year. Though a new normal is not entirely in focus, certain pragmatic issues spurred by the pandemic are moving to the center of district radars. District leadership – including boards of education – need to prepare themselves for the questions and considerations ahead. The issues discussed here peer beyond immediate critical considerations of equity of internet access, summer school, credit accumulation and federal coronavirus relief fund spending. The impact of the pandemic will be felt for years; becoming comfortable identifying and investigating the challenges spurred by it will help shape thinking for the new normal.
Heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC)
The importance of fresh air and its constant circulation prompts schools to open windows and doors. The natural ventilation jeopardizes the efficiency of HVAC systems, some of which may be funded through performance contracts that rely upon decreased energy consumption to make payment. A close scrutiny of the agreements is critical, especially if renegotiating terms is necessary to meet obligations while compromising full efficiency.
In addition, districts will be approached by HVAC providers offering upgrades in the form of HEPA filtration systems, UV light air purifiers, bipolar ionization solutions and other technology designed to reduce virus transmission and remove impurities that can affect health. Districts may seek independent research and guidance to determine if, where, when and how to adjust previous facility spending plans and consider investments in new or advanced air filtration.
The pandemic triggered a significant number of districts to exponentially accelerate their plans for 1:1 computing. The bulk device investments allowed districts to claim a needed win. Yet, the success comes with a cost. These new devices will all expire at the same time and there is no reason to believe another influx of state or federal funds will occur in concert. Therefore, districts need to update their technology purchasing strategy to be ready for the device refresh. Districts might consider a progressive term-of-life approach to spread out the replacement. In doing so, districts would break traditional trends and replace some of the new devices ahead of their life expectancy while others would need to survive just beyond their official expiration.
It is likely that virtual learning will remain part of a district’s repertoire and may be an important intervention for learning, behavior and safety issues. Districts must determine a sustainable strategy to identify the number of hotspots to keep on-hand and data plans to suit. Many of the hotspots used to provide internet access for students are subscription-based and negotiations with internet providers could yield wildly different arrangements. Districts could work as regional and/or collective bargaining blocks to secure service at the most affordable cost.
Similar to the data costs of a prepaid cell phone, it may be that districts purchase blocks of data and draw down this repository as a set number of hotspots are intermittently enabled and disabled. This approach may be more economical than purchasing recurring monthly or yearly data plans for each individual hotspot, especially not knowing what the usage demand will be.
Teacher candidate interviews
The screening process to become a teacher should broaden as a result of the pandemic. Human resource departments may add additional components to their review, such as a teacher candidate’s capacity for facilitating virtual learning and enacting equitable practices at the classroom and student levels. Having teacher candidates simulate an online lesson and demonstrate how it may be differentiated for both the learner’s technological abilities and his/her environment may give insight into the candidate’s capacities and sensitivities for both.
Critical and time-sensitive messages sent by districts during the pandemic revealed the strengths and weaknesses of communication modes. Districts that relied on free and popular social media services realized they were at their mercy. How and when posts appeared in recipient’s news feed was and is out of the district’s control. Some families got notices immediately; others lost them beneath the avalanche of other posts.
In addition, a district’s use of free social media forced families to use these advertisement-funded tools to know what was happening with their students’ schooling. The separation of advertisements and education has always been a contentious issue and percolates again as families are forced to sift through the marketing to find the information needed.
Districts should weigh the cost/benefit of free services versus the expense of a dedicated application. In doing so, districts also should keep in mind the degree of difficulty in converting messages into various languages or made accessible to screen readers to maximize caregivers’ access to the information.
Districts also found that the traditional entry of caregivers’ “home” and “work” phone numbers into a student management system is antiquated. These numbers were not nearly as important as having mobile phone numbers and permission to send text messages. Districts also realized the need for an easy way for caregivers to keep their contact information up to date. In some cases, this becomes research into a self-service update tool that is part of the website. In others, it became protocol for all front office staff to ask families for updated contact information as they called in for support.
With open windows and doors and more classes taking their learning experiences outside, vulnerabilities previously identified in security audits re-appear. Campuses become more open, prompting districts to consider increasing tools of surveillance as the learning bubble expands. Adding more cameras outside buildings, allocating staff time for camera monitoring and possible investments in gps-enabled student and staff IDs are among the options districts will mull over to determine the least intrusive, most cost-effective methods to update sustainable systems of safety.
In the post-pandemic era, virtual learning will no longer be relegated to high school credit recovery or the curricula of the alternative school. Districts found that there were students of all ages, contexts and conditions who flourished in the virtual environment. With still more to learn about how to make virtual learning intentional and not just a pandemic response, districts may partner with other systems of similar mission or regional proximity to collaborate in the creation of a virtual academy. A collaborative solution – in its early years of development – may be more cost effective than each district creating its own virtual learning environment. Economies of scale can be achieved if districts equitably contribute the necessary staff and to the licensing of applicable software to build out the programs.
Though it will take time to assess the full impact of nurses and protocols implemented to slow the spread of the virus, their legacy will be new approaches to wellness management. Does overall attendance improve when ill children are identified at the door with temperature checks, contact tracing is used and isolation areas are maintained? What technological tools and retro-fit space designs make wellness management more efficient and effective? As with HVAC, districts will need to consult independent research and guidance on the use of biometric door readers, thermal scanners and infrared thermal detection systems.
The pandemic response has been pressure-filled. While districts hope that such events occur only once every 100 years, the strengths and weaknesses of its handling by each district deserves intensive reflection. These are learning moments. Taking time to dissect decision-making authority, processes and protocols and the impact of leadership’s disposition on stakeholders clamoring for information will raise the foundation from which districts operate during the next challenging scenario.
The reflective work should be done in concert with boards of education, who themselves were faced – individually and collectively – with unforeseen responsibilities, increased public scrutiny and vocal constituents pushing them beyond what they may have assumed to be their duty or the boundaries of their elected role.
Mentioned earlier, these issues are only a sampling of that which emerges from, or is exposed by, the pandemic. If taken in totality, they may seem overwhelming. Not every issue needs to be addressed right away and the order in which they are considered will shift across local contexts and conditions. The same is true in creating each district’s new normal: paths forward will not be identical. Therefore, a greater good can be achieved by recognizing that all district leadership – including boards of education – embarks on this journey from a common starting point. By sharing the issues discovered as well as the strides and stumbles, a collective body of knowledge and experience emerges that positions everyone to be better equipped when their priorities dictate direction and decision.
Keith Look, Ed. D., (Twitter: @_kflook) is an education leadership consultant who previously served as a middle and high school principal in Jefferson County Schools and superintendent of Danville Independent Schools.