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Online Learning

From Wi-Fi to Food Drops: How Districts Are Tackling the Big Issues Now

Most education leaders say the U.S. has never faced anything like this before. The leader of Chiefs for Change on the short and long view as coronavirus continues.

March 27, 2020

Mike Magee is the chief executive officer of Chiefs for Change, a network of district and state education leaders dedicated to changing the status quo around education equity in the United States. Magee was formerly a teacher of American literature and philosophy at Haverford College, and won the Elizabeth Agee Prize in American Studies for his 2004 book Emancipating Pragmatism. We spoke to him about the macro issues emerging in education as the coronavirus closes almost every K-12 school in the nation—an event Magee calls “a crisis without precedent.”

EDUTOPIA: What is Chiefs for Change?

MIKE MAGEE: Chiefs for Change is an organization that supports a community of big systems leaders aligned around a common set of beliefs about what needs to be true—and what needs to change—in order for every kid in America to be put on a pathway to success. We have 38 members. Ten of them are chiefs of state departments of education around the country, and the rest are urban school superintendents of large school districts. Every school district within our membership has over 15,000 students, most of them are above 50,000.

EDUTOPIA: Have we ever seen anything like the impact of the coronavirus pandemic in K–12 education? Can you give us a sense of the scope of the issue we’re facing?

MIKE MAGEE: I had a member say to me this week, “This is not a hurricane. There’s no end to this.” And that is the tenor of the conversations that we’re having across our membership of education systems leaders. This crisis is without precedent. And the response needs to be commensurate to the challenge. We have several members who were directly and intimately involved as leaders in responding to Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana and Mississippi. And those were enormous challenges. And yet for the nation, this is just much more substantial.

EDUTOPIA: With something this big, there must be a federal role when it comes to schools? What do you think that needs to look like?

MIKE MAGEE: I’ll say it the way one of my members said it to me: We need a Tennessee Valley Authority for Wi-Fi in this country if we’re really going to have equitable digital learning. What they meant is that we need a massive, federally funded effort to make broadband available to everyone in the same way that the Tennessee Valley Authority made electricity available to everyone during the Great Depression. The details of how that would work from a federal perspective are above my pay grade. But it gives you a sense of how big people want to think right now about the need for historically disadvantaged families in particular to have access to Wi-Fi that allows them to get up online and learn—and not just in a crisis, but for good.

More generally, the federal role needs to be in the short term to provide enormous amounts of resources to states and districts. With as much flexibility as possible to support students—not just to learn but to stay connected to their school communities, which for millions of students, is the community where they feel most safe and most seen.

EDUTOPIA: You’ve been regularly talking to other Chiefs—what are some of the most innovative or standout solutions you've seen from schools?

MIKE MAGEE: A couple come to mind.

We have a district chief in our membership who leads the Phoenix Union High School District, Chad Gestson. He organized an effort this week called “Every Student Every Day” during which every single student in a Phoenix high school is contacted every day by an adult in the system to make sure they’re OK. That was an enormous operational lift and required a lot of know-how on his part and on the part of his team. We had a call this past Tuesday with all of our members, and Chad was able to describe what he was doing on that front and—immediately—my phone was lighting up with texts from other members saying, please connect me with Chad so I can get the details on that. That initiative is relevant not just to online learning, but also to issues around food distribution, mental health, and health care generally.

Miami—the fourth largest school district in the country—was way ahead of the curve on connecting everyone digitally. They’re a great example of how this can be done at scale. They had already developed pretty sophisticated, scaled online learning platforms for the Miami-Dade schools, and were able to quickly leverage those. And they also moved rapidly to procure what they needed in order to stand up a system. So, for example: They realized quickly that they couldn't just put everybody on Zoom if they didn’t have the Zoom Enterprise software because of privacy concerns. To be able to afford it, they moved rapidly to negotiation on a price for Zoom enterprise software—I think they were at maybe $25 per person originally, and were able to procure it for about $6 per person. 

Tennessee is thinking a lot about how to move beyond food drops to solve food distribution. With food drops, even if you’re doing your six-feet-apart social distancing, it’s not as safe as sheltering in place. And one of the things there that we’re starting to hear about is: What if you move to a system, for instance, of debit cards for food that would allow people to get food from wherever they can get it safely?

EDUTOPIA: Some cities—Philadelphia, Chicago—aren’t going online at all, for equity reasons. What do you think of that approach? Where does online learning fit into the picture now?

MIKE MAGEE: We have a great deal of variance across our membership on this issue of digital connectedness for students. I don’t fault districts for not being able to rapidly get all of their students connected with devices and Wi-Fi in this crisis. Getting students paper packets over the last couple of weeks is reasonable for some districts, given the challenge of ensuring that their students are connected to Wi-Fi (devices are a little bit more solvable). And so, the stop-gap of saying, “OK, we’re going to get paper packets, and then we’re going to have tiered levels of connection where we can make sure that people are getting some support,” is not unreasonable given the current challenges. That being said, these problems have to be solved. And the federal government can play a really big role in this.

I would say the vast majority of our members are employing online systems for learning during this crisis. And every one of them is also very concerned about equitable access to online learning and are trying as fast as they can to solve those problems.

In Guilford, North Carolina, they put Wi-Fi hotspots on 75 school buses this week and are deploying them strategically around Guilford County to get as much Wi-Fi access as possible to as many students as possible.

But I would say: No one in our membership thinks that paper packets are going to be an adequate 18-month solution, if that's what we’re looking at.

EDUTOPIA: A lot of teachers are struggling to teach at all right now. How can leaders support teachers—what teacher issues should leaders be aware of and provide support for?

MIKE MAGEE: So a couple of big ones:

For the vast majority of teachers, delivering content online is wholly new—they’ve never done it or been trained to do it. And so as everyone moves to online, professional learning for teachers is a sine qua non. You can’t do it if you don’t support and train your teachers.

Going back to Phoenix as an example of a place that’s really rallied in a smart way: They trained their teachers first. They thought about the fact that many teachers don’t have Wi-Fi in their homes. They had teachers without devices. So getting teachers Wi-Fi in their homes, getting them Chromebooks or whatever device you were going to use, was step one.

Step two was if you’re going to have them use any software at all to deliver online learning, you have to teach them how to use that software.

And then step three was content: What kind of online content will you ask them to use?

So there was a sequence of professional learning that needed to take place there in order to have even the barest reasonable degree of confidence that your teaching force was going to be able to do this in a way that would be meaningful for students.

Finally, teachers are like any other adult in this environment: Many have children at home, many are caring for family members who have gotten sick. And what applies to all of us right now applies to school communities, too. Everybody needs to be treated with a certain amount of grace in terms of the amount of work they can do in a crisis like this.

EDUTOPIA: Do you have any sense yet how the school systems might change as a result of this crisis?

MIKE MAGEE: We're not going to emerge from this and go back to what things looked like before. And I think people are beginning to at least prepare for a world in which the 2021 school year is interrupted by the virus again.

First, this issue of connectivity. It’s not just about online learning for classes. It’s about what does it really mean—from an equity standpoint—for a child not to have Wi-Fi in their home? And just how big an advantage is it when you do have Wi-Fi in your home?

Those are questions that we are grappling with right now. I think what you’ll find is that we emerge from this with a much stronger commitment on the part of the best systems leaders in the country to make sure all of their students and families have online access at home.

Second, I think that the crisis is going to lead to a lot of testing—by necessity—of online content delivery. And although we didn’t anticipate having to do this, we certainly will learn a lot from it. I know that all of our members are committed to not just doing this rapid-fire out of necessity, but to tracking the outcomes of it, to measuring the effectiveness of it in order to actually learn something and to continue to improve the quality of the learning that they're delivering online for as long as this goes on.

My last thought on this relates to something Michael Ryan—the executive director of the World Health Organization Health Emergencies Program—said almost a month ago now, and I’m paraphrasing: “The danger right now is not to move. And if you think you’re moving just in time, you’re way too late.” So I’m trying to help to lead all of our efforts with that in mind. And that is my message to the federal government. That’s my message to philanthropy. They have to move now. The need for resources is dire. Systems leaders around the country are ready to go, but they can not go without resources. And if you’re able to provide any kind of rapid, flexible funding to systems leaders with good strategies, right now, you’re going to make a massive impact in the lives of children.

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