When he started working as a school superintendent almost a decade ago, P.J. Caposey was eager. A couple of months before he was scheduled to start, he asked for an email address so he could get going early. That’s how he found out that the district didn’t have work emails set up.
Fast forward and things have changed. In a little less than a decade, the district has gone from having no functional email to “ubiquitous Wi-Fi” and every kid with a device, Caposey said during a panel at the ISTE Live conference in New Orleans last week. (ISTE is the parent organization of EdSurge, though we operate with editorial independence.)
That sounds like a stunning success story.
But Caposey, the superintendent of Meridian CUSD 223 in Illinois, added that the pandemic also forced them to realize “massive equity and access issues.”
As a district in a small, rural community, they suffered from the kind of broadband access issues that were spotlighted by the pandemic. “Quite frankly, I’m embarrassed,” Caposey said. “Because as someone who has talked about technology and has talked about equity, I knew this. It was, like, the worst kept secret.”
It was an example of how in the past few years edtech has been both a success story—allowing schools to keep learning from stalling out during the COVID-19 pandemic—and a spotlight alerting schools to the knotty social challenges confronting them.
Superintendents at the panel noted some of those successes. For example, embracing edtech over the past two-and-a-half years has made interactions with parents more flexible, said Alena Zachery-Ross, superintendent of Ypsilanti Community Schools in Michigan. Schools have been able to hold virtual meetings and use digital documents for parents who are at work, which has helped with parent-teacher conferences and meetings about individualized education programs, or IEPs, for students with a disability.
But the pandemic has also shined a light on the dramatic need for social-emotional learning and mental health services. It has alerted districts to dramatic issues—including a stark rise in students seeming to be contemplating suicide, revealed by tech systems that surveil students and send reports to school leaders about internet activity flagged as inappropriate. (Of course, that kind of high-tech surveillance in schools has raised privacy concerns.)
Districts are left to figure out how to incorporate the social and emotional support that’s so obviously needed, for students and staff, with the need to keep moving forward with academic learning, superintendents at the panel said.
After the Relief Funding Vanishes
Even as they confront those challenges, districts are staring down what will happen when the current pool of federal relief funding dries up.
The oncoming spending cliff is “scary for every educator in the room, regardless of which seat you occupy,” Caposey said.
Most districts received about 10 percent of their annual budget in elementary and secondary school emergency relief (ESSER) funds, which have been used to try to stave off their student’s learning loss from the pandemic disruptions to teaching and to add “really cool” technology and even staff, Caposey said. But when that money goes away, he added, districts are going to be in an “interesting position.”
Districts planned out how to deploy their relief funding in different ways, but its absence will likely present a nationwide obstacle.
So many solutions have been thrown at the wall using that federal funding that even the districts that have seen success in limiting learning loss may be unsure of what’s actually working, Caposey said, pointing towards his own district in Illinois.
Districts aren’t really expert at figuring out the return-on-investment once they’ve made a purchase either, he said.
Superintendents expect that figuring it out will mean making shifts.
Undoubtedly, Caposey said, some tools that teachers love will vanish with the federal dollars, but some won’t. Figuring out the returns for these tools over the next handful of years and making sure the transition doesn’t “damage the culture and climate of schools” will be “a really interesting and difficult process,” he added.