A New Level of Connectivity: ESU 16 proactive in service through pandemic's challenges

A New Level of Connectivity: ESU 16 proactive in service through pandemic's challenges

By Tyler Dahlgren

To be proactive or reactive? 

With COVID-19 cases spiking and spreading further west from Nebraska’s main metropolitan areas and east from Colorado’s, the answer was a no-brainer for ESU 16’s administrative team.

“We were getting squeezed in the middle as the virus progressed,” said ESU 16 Administrator Deb Paulman. “It became apparent that we needed to reach out to our districts and our public health officials, and we needed to do so right away.”

From their central offices in Ogallala to the Special Services Center in North Platte, service unit staff hastily began developing a continuity of learning plan template together to serve as a starting place for the school districts ESU 16 to serves. The template was available to be adapted to be district-specific, curated down to a local level.

“Everyone was trying to be as proactive as we could,” said Alison Smith, Director of Teaching and Learning, “even as districts were being put in some potentially reactive positions.   Within a very short window of time districts were having to consider if they were going to close, when and for how long.”

That question answered itself, and rather abruptly, when schools across the state closed their doors the week of March 16.  That left districts wrestling with how to support teaching and learning for the remainder of the 2019-20 school year without students being present in their buildings and classrooms.

To understand the complexities of ESU 16’s duties, it’s important to understand the sheer size of the area in central to western Nebraska to which it provides service. ESU 16 serves over 8,000 students from 16 public school districts in nine different counties, spanning over 12,000 square miles. Their school districts sit in three separate public health districts.

When the educational world went digital, that space seemed to shrink, but the initial task of simply bringing internet and bandwidth to all 8,000+ students was a tall one.

ESU 16  districts first surveyed their families to gauge internet accessibility and device availability. “Fortunately, schools weren’t short on hardware”, said Scott Jones, Network Operations Director at the service unit. Most of the smaller districts they work with were one-to-one and able to send devices directly home with students.

“What we did find out very quickly is that there were issues in homes with multiple students,” said Jones, who has worked as a statewide resource with Network Nebraska through the pandemic. “The majority of families had a great hook to the internet, but when you’re trying to have three classes go on at the same time, you can run short on both bandwidth and equipment.”

While families were calling service providers to up their in-home bandwidth, communities were putting together access points in parking lots, mobile areas for students without internet access to connect and download homework and tests.

“We discovered there was some inequity, in terms of access, across the state and especially in our area, where it’s very rural,” said Jones. “How far away you lived (from town) really impacted what kind of service you could get, so that was challenging.”

Keeping the school year on tracks under such difficult circumstances was truly an all-hands-on-deck effort, from the ESU to school districts to teachers, families and students. “And we have to give a shout out to local area telephone companies and internet providers”, stresses Paulman, “who offered 60-90 days of free access to families who did not already have internet.”

By mid-March, Zoom, a web conferencing platform, had become a way of life, for everyone. 

“It was a utilized resource before, don’t get me wrong,” said Jones, who worked with both school districts and higher-Ed, “but overnight it just exploded into an ‘everybody needed it yesterday’ kind of thing.” Out of necessity, Jones became somewhat of a Zoom guru along the way.

ESU 16’s staff hardly skipped a beat, continuing to provide both special education and professional learning services through Zoom. Speech pathologists, occupational and physical therapists, transition specialists, early childhood special education specialists––they all reached kids and families by way of webcam.

“To stay connected with our districts, was huge,” said Mary Peters, ESU 16’s Special Education Director. “Alison, Deb and I met with all of our districts, including our principals, superintendents and special education teachers, on weekly Zoom calls. That kept us all on the same page as far as what was going on with services being provided, how things were progressing and if there were any needs not being met.”

Those weekly Zoom meetings transitioned to every other week in April, but remained crucial to ESU 16’s support services, which varied not only from district to district, but from teacher to teacher and student to student, as well.

“There wasn’t a framework of what would be best practices for everybody, because each district was doing what was best for them and their students,” said Smith, who came to ESU 16 after a decade in the classroom teaching. “One district was providing something, and then you went six miles down the road and it was something different for another district.”

Still, those districts served as resources for one another. ESU 16 makes professional learning communities a priority, and leveraged PLC opportunities during school closures. First-grade teachers were matched with first-grade teachers and second-grade teachers with second-grade teachers, etc. on Zoom to share experiences, best practices and everything in-between.

“While we were doing that, we were continuing our cognitive coaching one-on-one with certain teachers, our new teachers, specifically,” said Smith. “We were supporting at an administrative level with resources and guidance documents based on the next steps moving forward.”

Currently, ESU 16 is offering Google Classroom Modules, where teachers and administrators from the area can meet to plan for the fall. In the meantime, their staff is transitioning to working in a digital world themselves. Providing remote learning assistance from a remote location. Distance learning support from a distance. It’s as ironic as it sounds, but it’s the only way to keep the train moving forward, which it has.

“This is a group of people that never stopped working on behalf of their districts,” said Paulman. “Our work is very relational. Our work in districts, no which department you’re talking about, is very much grounded in relationships. We all miss that.  We look forward to being able to engage with people face-to-face again. On the upside, I don’t typically see administrators once-a-week (like I do now).”

In another twist of irony, the pandemic has brought about an entirely new level of connectedness. Peters has 30 staff members that spend their days spread out across the different districts. Under normal circumstances, she may see everyone together five times each year. 

“Through this, I was able to be connected to them and see them all the time through the special education PLC meetings and the weekly district meetings,” Peters, who spent 15 years teaching before joining the ESU 16 staff, said. “I would agree that the connectivity has been on a totally different level than what it was before.”

Smith echoes those feelings, and even though she’s not face-to-face with educators like before, she feels those relationships growing stronger through the pandemic. In regard to her personal transition to working from home, Smith said there were two options with how to move forward.

“We could either choose to sit back and be reactive, or we could reinvent what we were currently doing to meet districts where they were at,” she said. “We chose the latter, because that’s really what all of us in education had to do.”

For Jones, this has been, understandably, the most challenging stretch of his career. A time when tech toys became essential tools overnight and learning curves looked in some instances like 90-degree angles. He’s more mentally exhausted now than ever before, but what’s been accomplished the last three and a half months will forever change the landscape of education.

“Now we have the ability to connect with kids three-hundred and sixty-five days a year,” Jones said. “Snow days, those are over. You may stay at home, but learning can go on because the tools are out there. They may not always be as good as being face-to-face because there is something to be said about that relationship and physical presence, but, boy, you can get a lot of things done with this technology.”

Smith credits teachers for their flexibility and adaptability, too. Especially the ones who had done things a certain way for 30 years, but didn’t hesitate to change on the fly and learn new things because it benefitted students.

“This is going to shift education in a positive direction,” Smith said. “I’m most proud of the resiliency shown by our administrators, teachers and students.”

Paulman considers herself lucky, personally and professionally, to work with individuals so willing to take on a challenge, and the past four months have certainly been that. 

“We want to work to sustain this new level of connectivity,” Paulman said. “And it’s layered. Connection with our teachers, our administrators and connections across our departments as well as across the state, with NDE and other colleagues. We were on Zoom calls across the state, literally every day.”

It’s summer now, and though the work doesn’t stop, ESU 16 has had a chance to reflect. “It’s phenomenal”, Peters said, “the partnerships formed and the collaboration that took place. Phenomenal, and, looking back, essential.”

“We were able to provide the tools that everybody needed, and we did it overnight,” added Jones. “Because of all the good people that came together and joined forces, that’s why we could do those things.”

ESU 16 is proud to be a part of the hard work and efforts of the past 6 months, said Paulman.

“It’s pretty amazing what was accomplished.”