Groundwork Laid Nearly Two Decades Ago and a Skilled Team Helped DA Pivot to Remote and Hybrid Learning
Story by Pat James
Anne Benson can’t help but laugh when she thinks back to February 2020, just before the COVID-19 pandemic arrived and disrupted everyday life as we know it.
With the total number of reported cases accelerating globally as Durham Academy’s spring break neared, Director of Technology Trevor Hoyt recommended to Benson, who serves as the school’s database administrator, and the rest of the Office of Information Technology team that they start planning for a potential shift to remote learning. But Benson, like many Americans, couldn’t quite fathom such an idea.
“I’m like, ‘Oh, it’s just the media. They’re just blowing everything out of proportion. It’s nothing. Nothing’s going to happen,’ ” Benson said. “And thank goodness that Trevor did not listen to me because we would have been sunk.”
Those early conversations laid the groundwork for what was to come, as the OIT team went from working behind the scenes to being at the forefront of DA’s efforts to continue educating students amid a pandemic. The group’s work has been tireless — and even under such dire circumstances, still easy to overlook. But its importance cannot be overstated.
Although a lot of OIT’s preparation took place before and during spring break last March as well as over the summer, it truly began nearly two decades ago.
Hoyt said the SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) and avian flu outbreaks of 2003 forced a lot of schools to think about how they might approach a pandemic. That was certainly the case at DA, where then-Head of School Ed Costello and longtime Director of Business Services Jerry Benson tackled the task of creating a contingency plan for how DA could continue offering classes if campus closed for an extended period of time.
At the time, Middle School digital learning coordinator Karl Schaefer had been tracking Moodle, a learning management system that launched in 2002 to help educators create online courses. Hoyt said Schaefer spent about a year evaluating the platform, and in 2005, network manager Forrest Beck set up a Moodle server for DA. That paved the way for faculty to digitize their resources.
Within the next two years, Hoyt said DA started examining the possibility of developing a one-to-one program to provide students with a device to use at school and at home. That was kicked into high gear when Hoyt, Beck, Schaefer and Jerry Benson visited Apple’s headquarters in Cupertino, California, in 2007, but the financial crisis that enveloped the country in 2008–2009 prevented DA from implementing the program until the early 2010s, shortly after Apple released the first iPad.
“There are other things we did [during the pandemic],” Hoyt said, “but I would say those two things — the online LMS [learning management system] in Moodle and the one-to-one program — were things that we did years ago that really put us in a good position.”
Other previous decisions that Hoyt said paid dividends upon the pandemic’s onset included the incorporation of school information system Veracross — “it’s like the Swiss Army knife; it allows us to do so many things all in one system” — in 2010 and moving business communications platforms from Slack to Microsoft Teams — which Beck integrated with Veracross just before the pandemic struck.
“[Beck] wrote this connector that looks at the Veracross class information and it says, ‘OK, so I’ve got this section of algebra and these are the students and here’s the teacher, and I’m gonna take that information and I’m going to import it over into Microsoft, and I’m going to automatically create a Team with those people already in it,’ ” Hoyt said. “So, you can imagine how much time that saved all the teachers when the pandemic hit.”
As much as all those steps helped DA transition to Durham E-cademy for the final two months of the 2019–2020 school year, there was plenty of work to be done heading into 2020–2021.
Anne Benson said one of the OIT team’s biggest lifts over the summer was deploying new iPads to students in grades one through four and establishing a new one-to-one iPad program for pre-kindergarten and kindergarten. That eventually led to Beck creating a webpage for Lower School parents to visit so they could retrieve their child’s password.
Benson also did a lot of work in Veracross, updating each division’s constantly evolving schedules and setting up an online carpool dismissal platform that’s been such a hit among faculty and families that it’s likely to remain in use going forward.
“That was just taking something that Veracross already provided,” she said. “It was basically a check-in or check-out [form] and just revamping it so that when the car pulls up, the [faculty]carpool caller, rather than calling out on the [walkie-talkie], just looks the student’s name up and then essentially is checking them out. And then the teachers have a page in their classroom that they just keep refreshing that will then put the student’s name into the carpool. … I think it’s made carpool a little more organized.”
Another summer project was the Safer Together webpage, which allowed students, faculty, staff and parents to complete a COVID-19 wellness screening form upon arriving on campus. While many schools paid large sums of money for such a tool, according to Hoyt, Beck was able to create Safer Together on his own, given his previous experience setting up integrations with Veracross.
“The big thing in the beginning was the geolocation,” Beck said. “The administration only wanted you to be able to check in when you’re at school, so having to have it built in so that it can check where you are based on your GPS coordinates and see if you’re within a certain distance of the school, that was the biggest piece of it initially.”
Despite spending the entire summer preparing, the OIT team couldn’t foresee all the challenges that the start of the school year would bring.
The biggest was figuring out the best videoconference setup for each classroom to support hybrid learning. While some schools spent thousands of dollars on professional equipment, Hoyt said he didn’t see the point in that kind of expenditure since the equipment likely wouldn’t be used once all students returned to campus. So, the OIT team made the most of what it had on hand, giving iPads to some teachers and iMacs from the computer labs to others who needed a better microphone or webcam. It took a lot of trial and error, but eventually, the team found a solution for everyone.
Another obstacle was the number of support requests that the team needed to sort through. Under normal circumstances, Hoyt said the team fields about 200 case tickets each month. That number jumped to 350 in March 2020. It then skyrocketed to 550 in August.
“August and September felt like an avalanche to us,” Hoyt said.
To help alleviate some of that stress, the team brought in Dave Chandler — who has longstanding ties to DA as an alumni parent and the spouse of coach and former faculty member Judy Chandler — to assist with support requests. Specifically, he created a dashboard that incorporated data from Teams to determine why a student might be encountering an issue with the application, whether it be due to internet connectivity or something else.
Hoyt said most support requests were related to hardware issues, and that presented yet another challenge. Normally, the OIT team can get a laptop repaired in 10 to 12 days. But early in the school year, it took about four to six weeks because of how difficult it was to acquire parts. Systems and support specialist Brandon Rosser dealt with that while also trying to work with remote students to figure out what might be wrong with their laptop and if they needed one of the few spares.
“I think the secret sauce to that was just anticipating needs and being consistent,” Rosser said. “I guess going back to the age-old thing of treating people how you want to be treated, because you know with that added level of stress of dealing with these unprecedented times and not knowing how you’re going to get your issues addressed, making sure that you’re sharing as much pertinent information as possible and also making it digestible — which, when you hit a groove, it’s easy to get into some really technical jargon.
“So, it was just making sure that you remember you’re talking to someone who probably doesn’t understand probably about 70% of what would be the natural response to a lot of those questions,” Rosser continued. “It was a great exercise in patience and thinking outside of the box.”
Speaking of thinking outside of the box, many Upper School teachers took advantage of the fall weather and taught classes outside, where there was a lower risk of contracting COVID-19. Hoyt said that caught the OIT team by surprise, and early in the school year there were several requests to improve the outdoor Wi-Fi. So, Beck worked quickly with CDW to get access points installed around the K Family Outdoor Commons and the quad.
DA ought to reap the benefits of that for years to come. The same goes for the expansion of the one-to-one program and the work that the OIT team did with the division technology coordinators to standardize and streamline the devices and applications that everyone at DA uses.
Those are certainly positives to come away from this challenging year, one in which the OIT team went above and beyond.
“I’m really proud of [the work we did], obviously, because I feel that we were fairly well prepared,” Hoyt said. “I mean, it wasn’t perfect. I’m not going to say that there was nobody unhappy. There were times where people were unhappy, but I feel like we came up with a solution that made people happy in a reasonable amount of time. And I’m really proud of our team that we all stuck together. It could have been really easy to lose patience with each other, and no one did. We all worked together.”