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At the live ISTE conference, lessons from the pandemic and new challenges

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When he started working as a school superintendent nearly a decade ago, PJ Caposey was impatient. A couple of months before he was supposed to start, he asked for an email address so he could start early. That’s how he found out that there is no working e-mail in the district.

Fast forward and everything has changed. In just under a decade, the district went from having no functional email to having “ubiquitous Wi-Fi” and every child with a device, Kaposi said during panel at the ISTE Live conference in New Orleans last week. (ISTE is the parent organization of EdSurge, although we operate independently of the editorial board.)

It sounds like an amazing success story.

But Kaposi, head of Meridian CUSD 223 in Illinois, added that the pandemic has also made them aware of “huge issues of equity and access.”

As an area in a small rural community, they suffered from such broadband issues the focus of the pandemic. “Honestly, I’m embarrassed,” Kaposi said. “Because as someone who talked about technology and talked about capital, I knew that. It was, like, the worst secret.”

It was an example of how, over the past few years, edtech has been both a success story — enabling schools to continue learning without being disrupted during the COVID-19 pandemic — and a spotlight, alerting schools to the complex social issues they face.

Board leaders noted some of these successes. For example, the adoption of edtech over the past two and a half years has made interactions with parents more flexible, said Elena Zaheri-Ross, superintendent of Ypsilanti Community Schools in Michigan. Schools have been able to hold virtual meetings and use digital documents for working parents, which has helped with parent-teacher conferences and individualized education program, or IEP, meetings for students with disabilities.

But the pandemic has also shed light on the dramatic need for social-emotional learning and mental health services. It alerted districts to dramatic problems, including a sharp increase in the number of students who appear to be about to take their own lives, as detected by tech systems that monitor students and send reports to school administrators about Internet activity flagged as inappropriate. (Of course, such high-tech surveillance in schools raised privacy concerns.)

Districts are left to figure out how to incorporate the social and emotional support so clearly needed, for students and staff, with the need to keep moving forward with academic learning, superintendents on the panel said.

Once the aid funding is gone

Even as they face these challenges, counties are looking down at what will happen when the current pool of federal aid funding runs out.

The looming cost cliff “scares every faculty member in the room, no matter where you are,” Kaposi said.

Most districts received about 10 percent of their annual budget in elementary and middle school emergency relief (ESSER) funds, which were used to try to prevent their students from losing learning due to pandemic disruptions and to add “really cool” technology and even the staff, Kaposi said. But if this money goes away, he added, the districts will find themselves in an “interesting position.”

Regions have planned the distribution of aid funding in different ways, but its absence is likely to be a hindrance for the entire country.

So many solutions have been thrown against the wall with this federal funding that even districts that have succeeded in limiting learning loss may not be sure what actually works, Kaposi said, pointing to his district in Illinois.

Districts also aren’t experts at determining ROI after they’ve made a purchase, he said.
Chiefs expect finding that out will mean a shift.

There’s no doubt, Kaposi said, that some tools teachers love will disappear with federal dollars, but some won’t. Determining the impact of these tools over the next few years and making sure the transition doesn’t “damage the culture and climate in schools” will be “a really interesting and challenging process,” he added.

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