Emergency Infrastructure for the 2020-2021 School Year
The scariest threats target assumptions that we’ve never questioned. The owner of my hometown basketball team, Tilman Fertitta, built a diversified multi-billion dollar business empire in casinos, restaurants, hospitality, aquariums, arenas, and sports franchises. In years prior, he enjoyed tremendous wealth. However, like many rational people, he built his empire on the assumption that it would never be dangerous for people to gather, to breathe close to one another. Such is the nature of a pandemic.
Our nation’s K12 system, already hollowed out by decades of slow cost cutting, rising expenses, and inattention, now faces a similar reckoning. Superintendents are given a mandate to provide safe instruction without the ability to give their team the resources needed to give their students the education they need. I read once that 88% of the costs of a school district are fixed. We’ve designed an education system that’s both an inherent public health threat in this environment and is the victim of so much inertia that it cannot fix itself. However, courageous district leaders are redesigning the status quo by making bold investments in Emergency Infrastructure.
Even while districts face extreme budget cuts, many are quickly adopting the Emergency Infrastructure needed to ensure successful academic and administrative operations. Emergency Infrastructure can be understood in three layers: Hardware, Software, and Application.
The hardware layer physically connects students to their education: think iPads, Chromebooks, WiFi routers. Many districts have found this the easiest layer to adapt to, thanks to the 1:1 movement plus Obama-era federal funding. However, like any issue in K12, the lack of Emergency Infrastructure disproportionately hurts students of color. We’re literally talking about access here: Some students have new Macbooks, strong WiFi connections, and engaged parents; too many don’t. Districts have been really creative responding to this - kudos to (Mesa Cloud client) South Bend for repurposing their buses into WiFi hotspots.
Once kids can get access to the Internet, their next obstacle is the software layer. How are kids going to learn in this new environment? As a recent New York article laid out: “Teaching is not like any other profession”, “you teach [kids] to tie their shoes, open a bag of potato chips; you teach them how to read, how to tell time, what an isosceles triangle is, what caused the Civil War. No one besides their parents can make more of a difference in their lives.” Remote instruction is unnatural: lacking an in-person teacher runs against everything we want our schools to be, but the instruction must be delivered and for this year, software will sustain instruction.
The last layer in a district’s Emergency Infrastructure stack is the application layer. The application layer is perhaps the most misunderstood by districts, because, while it’s easy to understand the urgency behind an LMS or a digital learning platform, it’s harder to think about the different ways that decision making will be moving to the cloud. Think about how much your district relies upon in-person meetings, how much of the district’s data lives in checklists, binders, or in other physical paperwork that will be inherently difficult, if not impossible to access in a remote environment. The world changes very slowly then all at once: technology that, until recently, only early adopter districts were embracing, is now required infrastructure to meet a global emergency.
Yes, Emergency Infrastructure costs money, but the good news is that a host of resources exist for districts. At the federal level, Title IV and Title I are the first places to look. Title IV funds are directed to “provide all students with access to a well-rounded education; improve school conditions for student learning; and improve the use of technology to improve the academic achievement and digital literacy of all students”, but many districts that we talk to explicitly bookmark these funds to address access gaps for disadvantaged students, along with Title I funds. As a result, these districts have already aligned a federal funding source with a strategy to implement equitable Emergency Infrastructure.
For example, students of color are 70% more likely to be affected by a scheduling error, and even though Mesa Cloud addresses scheduling errors and acts as a student progress platform for all students, we still see districts use Title IV funds to shepherd the implementation through. The Department of Education has waived certain requirements that previously capped the percentage of Title IV funds that could be spent on software at 15%, so for many districts, new funding depth has become available.
The challenges the districts and their leaders are facing are not fair burdens to place on an already-strained system. However, districts have a duty to ensure that no student falls victim to chaotic circumstances. A generation of cloud-based technology awaits, ready to be prosecuted for this very purpose: connecting classes of remote learners with the educators and counselors charged with challenging every assumption held about our educational system.