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Topics / Improving Schools & Systems

How to Successfully Mobilize a School District in Response to COVID-19

Pedro Martinez, superintendent and chair of Chiefs for Change, offers perspectives on addressing the digital divide, leveraging technology, and facilitating teachers, students, and parents to get through this time together


When the pandemic hit the United States full force last spring, most school districts had to scramble to provide out-of-the-box solutions for fully remote learning. While every district had challenges, some were able to navigate the new landscape more successfully than others — one of the key factors being that some districts, like the San Antonio Independent School District (SAISD), had conditions in place that enabled them to keep students and families connected to school during the crisis.

SAISD superintendent Pedro Martinez recently spoke with Saskia Levy Thompson, director of the Education program’s New Designs to Advance Learning portfolio at Carnegie Corporation of New York, to share what has helped his district navigate this challenging moment in time and lessons learned along the way. Martinez, whose district recently published a reopening plan that serves as a model for the state, was recognized as a Great Immigrant Great American by Carnegie Corporation of New York in 2020. He is also chair of the board of directors of Corporation grantee Chiefs for Change, a national network of innovative district and state education leaders dedicated to preparing all students for academic and lifelong success. In this role, Martinez is overseeing efforts to support districts around the country as they respond to COVID-19. The following is an edited conversation.

Saskia Levy Thompson: The first question I have is, what conditions were in place that helped SAISD manage the crisis and the transition to remote learning last spring? I know you already had very intentional improvement and capacity building efforts underway, so maybe you can describe some of those and how they positioned you, your district’s educators, and your families to make this extraordinary pivot to remote learning.

Pedro Martinez: Sure. So, in my district, over 90 percent of our children are living in poverty, we have almost 80 percent of the poverty of the entire county, and we have the third highest poverty rate in the entire state of Texas. And so, for us, one of the things that we’ve long recognized in San Antonio is a digital divide. Our plan has always been to start creating a one-to-one digital strategy where every child would have a device. We knew we were going to struggle to get Internet access for them. But we were already doing that work, and we were already building a great suite of digital applications.

And then COVID hits us. Schools closed, and we still had to distribute over 40,000 devices and over 3,000 hotspots. The logistics were very difficult. But our team was amazing. We opened up sites to offer meals. Our bus drivers created what they call SAISD Eats, like Uber Eats. We started delivering food at 70 sites because we saw families were afraid or they didn’t have transportation to get to our schools. 

And then, of course, our teachers just jumped in. We had been doing teacher surveys, and we knew that our teachers were very excited about our professional development opportunities. We were already doing what I would call “PD in Pajamas.” We’d bring in these amazing experts around our dual-language programs, literacy, or math. Some of the sessions were in person, others were remote, and our teachers could literally be in their pajamas. The other thing we had already done beforehand is we had to make sure that every teacher had a brand new laptop in my district. 

So, when COVID hit, our teachers were ready. We already knew how to provide effective, professional development remotely. And, of course, we wanted to make sure to reduce the anxiety of our teachers. Especially for our teachers who are not digital natives, we knew it was going to be a little bit of a struggle.

Saskia Levy Thompson What lessons has the district learned that have informed planning for the fall? Clearly San Antonio was, under your leadership, arguably as well prepared as a district could have been for the unimaginable. But, even within that, I would imagine there are some pieces that didn’t come together as quickly as you would have wanted or aspects you’d like to improve as we look ahead to what is likely to be a continued state of disruption with possible rolling closures and blended experiences.

Pedro Martinez: Even with the advantages we had last spring, we saw many children struggle, and we were limited in the additional services that we could provide. With our special needs children, even when we wanted to provide at-home services, families just didn’t feel safe.

One lesson we have learned is the importance of leveraging the excitement of our teachers. We adopted a new learning management system called Canvas that is very robust. Normally, what we would do in a year, we did in a matter of weeks. Our teachers have developed over a million lesson plans for Canvas, and our enrollment is just under 49,000, so that gives you a sense of how big the scale is. And our teachers are driving it.

We saw parents really struggle in trying to help their children, and so we’ve built several resources just for parents, including offering training for Canvas before school started. Thousands of parents have already participated. We’re going to continue offering multiple sessions.

 

We also learned that parents want more support. We saw parents really struggle in trying to help their children, and so we’ve built several resources just for parents, including offering training for Canvas before school started. Thousands of parents have already participated. We’re going to continue offering multiple sessions.

We’ve learned that we have to be ready for in-person instruction. But our commitment to families is we’re going to do it gradually. We have a multilevel system that we created with San Antonio Metro Health. As metrics improve, we’ll be phasing children into the green zone [meaning 50 percent capacity in classrooms] beginning with our younger students. This experience has really highlighted the significant limitations and challenges of virtual learning among younger children.

Saskia Levy Thompson: Is there anything your district is doing differently now or will do differently once you return to in-person instruction?

Pedro Martinez: The investments that we have made with our technology and our digital applications, they’re going to stay with us. Going forward, every child in my district will always have a device that they can take home.

Another factor we are looking at is when a child has to be absent from class. How can we leverage the technology so that the learning continues? Children are technology natives. If you make the lessons engaging, they will continue to use those lessons. If you dont make them engaging, just because students log on, it doesn’t mean they’re going to be interested.

We’ve also learned to empower our parents. With technology, we can communicate with them in ways that we couldn’t before. A big lesson that I will tell my colleagues right now: Make sure your parents can leverage those same devices you’re giving your students. We’ve had to be very explicit about it, to tell parents, “You can use the devices,” because they said, “it’s assigned to my child.”

By the way, our parent meetings are so much more accommodating for families now because they don’t have to travel, and they can do it from wherever, whether it’s from their cell phone or from a device. We can also engage with families in a much more effective way, because we can have them do surveys while we’re on Zoom. We can have them ask questions on chat, and we have a record of them.

Saskia Levy Thompson: It’s so uplifting to talk to you and hear these stories. I want to close by asking about your role in national efforts to support outstanding leadership at the district and state level through Chiefs for Change. What has Chiefs done that has been particularly salient?

We’ve had information sharing sessions on almost a weekly basis with all of our [Chiefs for Change] members and their staff.… Everything from transportation to the best practices for disinfecting, how to space out children, what lessons some of these countries have learned, and how to work with younger children versus older children.

 

Pedro Martinez: I’m very proud that Chiefs for Change is working with McKinsey, a consulting company that has studied how different nations are going through this, how they’ve opened up, and what mistakes have been made. We’ve had information sharing sessions on almost a weekly basis with all of our members and their staff to look at those lessons and discuss granular details on everything from transportation to the best practices for disinfecting, how to space out children, what lessons some of these countries have learned, and how to work with younger children versus older children.

One of the things that all of us know is there is no road map for this. We’re all still trying to figure this out. The biggest challenge I see right now is — whether it’s superintendents, trustees, parents, or teachers — there’s a lot of anxiety. There is a lot of fear. We are trying to provide moral support by telling everybody “step back.” Breathe a bit. We’ve got to get through this together. 

I love the fact that, in our world of K–12, I’ve never seen colleagues be so open, so vulnerable, and also, at the same time, so willing to learn from lessons and mistakes, because we all make our mistakes. That’s what we are going to keep doing. And, I’m hopeful.

Saskia Levy Thompson: Thank you so much for sharing your perspective. I think we have observed in this moment that we don’t have great channels for sharing real-time knowledge in the education space. You are doing a tremendous amount to bridge that gap.



TOP: SAISD superintendent Pedro Martinez (left) walks with students during the 2020 St. Philips College Early College High School graduation ceremony. (Credit: San Antonio Independent School District)