Jul 06 2021

Getting Disconnected Students Access to Their Online Classrooms

Having a powerful ‘why’ helps everyone involved in education to stay the course during challenging times.

One Thursday evening in March 2020, we learned that, because of the pandemic, the state of Texas would begin shutting down schools on the following Monday. Four days later, the Ector County Independent School District began educating 34,000 children in a virtual environment.

However, for many of our students back then, virtual learning was impossible; 39 percent of K–12 students had little or no internet access in their home. So, early on, we printed out thousands of paper packets for parents to pick up.

Design the System for Online Learning

I was lucky to discover early in life that serving children was my purpose and became dedicated to providing high-quality academic experiences to prepare children for success. I look at my purpose as my “why,” and it drives all of my leadership decisions. My job is to facilitate all of the pieces, from administration to the classroom, that enable our teachers to have great learning experiences with their students. However, in my 33 years as an educator, I had never before experienced anything like this.

One of my favorite quotes comes from W. Edwards Deming, who said, “Every system is perfectly designed to get the result it gets.”

Immediately, what we already knew became painfully clear. Our system was not designed for virtual learning. Without adequate technology in their homes, some students only had a printed learning packet and a weekly telephone conversation with a teacher.

WATCH NOW: Educators discuss the importance of digital equity in any learning environment. 

Accelerated Internet Access Enhanced Learning Experiences

Others had access challenges. Have you ever seen kids with lightning-fast internet laugh at another whose internet connection was so slow that it distorted his speech and video during a videoconference? I have, and I worry that such class experiences are unhealthy.

We had always known that technology could enhance the learning experiences that teachers provide. That is why, before the pandemic, our team developed a years-long master plan to put devices into the hands of every student, from pre-K through 12th grade, and to facilitate broadband access to all of our families. But in March 2020, we did not have years to solve this problem. At best, we had months.

So, driven by this deep “why” to do better for our students, we accelerated that work. We purchased 37,000 new devices within six months. We immediately and diligently searched for quality short- and long-term broadband solutions for our students.

We bought mobile hotspots and installed wireless towers on school campuses. We also became the first school district in the country to partner with Starlink, the satellite internet service developed by Elon Musk’s SpaceX, to provide broadband access in remote areas. In addition, we formed the ConnEctor Task Force, a group of community leaders and elected officials, to research and propose a long-term broadband solution for our entire community.

RELATED: K–12 leaders can work with local government to devise connectivity solutions.

Ector County ISD Is Better Equipped for Virtual Education

Going back to that Deming quote, we know that when the pandemic arrived, we were not perfectly designed to educate our students in a virtual environment. But a lot has happened in a year.

Today, every student has a device, and almost every family has high-speed internet access in their home. Today, we have a learning management system in place, and our teachers are much better equipped to effectively use technology tools. Today, we can offer a robust virtual learning experience for Ector County ISD students.

The pandemic has challenged and shaped every one of us like never before. Education, and educators, will probably never be the same. But no matter the circumstances, having a clear and powerful “why” — a vision that guides you forward — is a critical first step for riding out any storm.

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