Technology in the age of COVID: Texoma districts look back one year

Michael Hutchins
Herald Democrat
SISD Human Resources Specialist Chelsea Muniz works from home as her children, Danielle and Lucas study from home in March 2020. [courtesy photo]

In many ways the past year has been one of significant change in the daily lives of people. The way individuals socialize, work and go about everyday activities has changed since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. The changes in reaction to the "new normal" may continue even after pandemic itself has passed.

In many ways, this can be seen through the many school districts across the region, who in the face of uncertain times, turned to technology as the key to returning to the classroom following Spring Break 2020. Officials with the Sherman and Denison Independent School districts had to take on the monumental task of moving an entire district into virtual learning during a time of extreme uncertainty.

"In a time where everything around us was literally shutting down, districts across the state and Sherman ISD went into overdrive," SISD Communications Director Kimberly Simpson said. "By overdrive, I mean that we went from providing a traditional education from our students to thinking outside of the box and think about how we can provide a high-level education remotely."

Pandemic coincides with Sherman tech upgrades

Like many districts across the state, Sherman entered into the pandemic during spring break in March 2020. During those short few days, district leaders and educators worked on transitioning the district to remote learning. 

"During the onset of COVID-19, our district had to immediately assess the needs of our students," Simpson said. "Each of our campuses reached out to families to assess their individual needs for access to food and access to technology."

For SISD, the move to distance learning took many different angles. Some classes were taught via live-streamed lessons while other  materials and assignments were posted online for their students to complete and submit. Some students who did not have access to technology instead picked up paper packets at the schools for each week's assignments.

Sherman was fortunate in that it had already scheduled the purchase of new laptops, tablets and other devices in January in an effort to increase the scope of its technology footprint by 1,400 devices. The district started the pandemic with 1,100 devices and 125 hotspots that allowed remote internet access. 

These access points were complimented by a small fleet of 10 district buses that acted as Wi-Fi hubs where students could go to get access. The district also turned on public access to Wi-Fi at its various campuses and allowed students to connect from the parking lot in an effort to increase internet access.

The district needs for technology for varied, Simpson said. In some cases, families had access to a compatible device or high-speed internet, but not the other. In other cases, some families had access to neither.

Sherman ISD had already planned to roll out a series of technology updates when the pandemic hit.

One of the situations that district officials ran into was some families that had a compatible device, but did not have enough devices for the entire household. As an example, a family may have one laptop, but two students who would need to use it. This led the district to adopt goals of providing each family with a device.

Simpson described the first few months of distance learning as trial and error as officials and educators adjusted to a new system of teaching. Simpson ultimately applauded these efforts by teachers and district technology staff.

The end of the school year brought another wave of uncertainty for the district as it weighed how best to prepare for the fall semester. Questions lingered about if students would return to the classroom or continue distance learning. It was about this time that a second wave of 1,400 devices arrived at the district.

"Although we had gone from March until May, there still was a lot of uncertainty," Simpson said. "On our end, our goal was to get those devices in and ready for the start of school because we didn't know if we would be in school at that time."

The district did see a slight uptick in loaned devices during the fall semester as some families elected to continue distance learning. For Fall 2020, the district lent out 1,127 Chromebooks , about 250 Apple iPads and 78 Wi-Fi hotspots. As of March 2, the district still had 1,172 students still in distance learning throughout the district, however she expects this number to drop after spring break.

Denison adjusts technology to meet needs

Denison ISD started the pandemic with a number of laptops that were not configured for use outside of school campuses.

Like Sherman, Denison started the pandemic with district devices. However,  many of these devices were not setup to allow students to work from home, district officials said.

"As for devices that kids took home, there weren't any, really," DISD Assistant Director of Technology Kyle Harris said. "There may have been some special cases with students who had special accommodations, but there were only one or two."

Harris said the district had spoken about plans to increase its digital footprint eventually, but the pandemic escalated that effort. At the beginning of the pandemic, the district was able to determine about 900 families needed devices of some kind.

The district had a number of Windows-based laptops on hand, but they were all configured to work only from school campuses. Servers and other technology that they relied on were not accessible from student's homes, Harris said.

 At the same time, districts across the country all began laptops, Wi-Fi hotspots and other devices as they transitioned to remote learning. This led to the district having some difficulties finding the devices it needed for all of its students, including hotspots that allowed students to get online.

"We knew that we needed internet for kids at home, but as soon of this happened all of the hotspots across the United States were essentially gone," Harris said.

The district was able to acquire about 250 tablet computers from AT&T, but they were not the best fit for the district's needs, Harris said. With these devices, and converted laptops, the district began the process of going fully remote.

"The laptops that went out with Windows on them were better than nothing and certainly better than the tablets, but we were still running into issues where settings needed to be changed," Harris said.

Harris attributed the early successes of the transition to his small but dedicated team who worked tirelessly to get things setup.

"We have a small team, but all of them are hard workers who are willing to come in and help when they are needed," Harris said.

It wasn't until the beginning of the fall semester that the district was able to get a much-needed shipment of 1,800 chrome books.  As of mid-February, Harris said about 400 of the devices were still loaned out to students on distance learning. Now, the focus is on preparing the district for the the next step.

Harris said has has plans over the summer to begin efforts to assign devices to students throughout the district to allow them to have computers that can be used for studies both on and off campus. This will include transitioning the remaining laptops to Chromebooks.

Through December, the district invested $566,298 in technology needs using state Local Educational Agency, also known as LEA, funding. The city itself contributed $125,000 in CARES Act reimbursements, and the district plans to seek an additional $275,769 from the Texas Education Agency and its Operation Connectivity.

Changes to education and the end of the snow day

Both districts said that the efforts during the pandemic have changed the way educators look at learning and have proven the viability of learning outside of the classroom. At the same time, both seemed  cautious about this leading to the end of the so-called "snow day" when students stay at home due to poor weather.

"I think there are a lot of benefits that we've realized  from distance learning, but I do not think there is going to be a major shift away from classroom centric instruction," Harris said.

Likewise, Simpson said the events of 202 have shifted how teachers view the need to cancel classes when the district has proven it can be transitioned to online learning. However, the system is not without flaws.

 As an example, both referred to the recent snowstorm in February. While officials planned to transition to distance learning, wide-spread power and utility outages made this impossible.