Hurricane-Ravaged Schools Turn to Tech to Keep Students on Track

Hurricane Harvey

Originally Published on Education Week – September 18, 2017

Photo by Mic Smith/AP.

As high school students in South Carolina’s coastal Beaufort County schools waited for the winds of Hurricane Irma to die down, floodwaters to recede, and their schools to re-open, many of them were also able to do their school work—with the help of technology.

Officials in the 1-to-1 device district scrambled ahead of the storm to distribute laptops to its 6,000 high school students and had virtual meetings with teachers, telling them to make assignments as they would if school were open. While schools were closed, two technology coaches were available by phone and text and on Facebook to provide support for teachers and students, said Christine Robinson, the director of educational technology for the 22,000-student district.

Teachers in the district already had experience communicating with students with tech platforms, “so this was not new for us,” Robinson said. “We were just taking it a step further.”

School districts across the country have for years counted on technology not just for instructional purposes but to provide basic communication with families. As districts from Texas to Florida remained closed in the aftermath of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma—which have ravaged entire communities, knocked out power, and displaced families—many turned to digital strategies to retain connections with students, parents, and school personnel, and to press ahead with academic work.

In Beaufort County, the assignments were optional for students. But having most of them engaged in learning during the 2.5 days when school was closed may mean the district doesn’t have to make up as many seat-time hours later in the school year.

Solutions in the Cloud

Technology has become a key part of disaster response for school districts. Educators and administrators have found that social media can deliver accurate, up-to-date information to school communities and that technology can keep students shut out of school engaged in learning. Additionally, digital apps typically used for routine communication can be tools for rescue in emergencies.

The evolution of technology also means that recovery after a disaster can take place more quickly. Many platforms and tools are hosted in the cloud instead of locally and can be easily restored, and swift communication can protect expensive technology. Of course, much of that tech use depends on access to electricity and internet—or at least batteries and backup options—which can be unreliable during and after a weather emergency.

Many districts are finding that technology-enhanced communication has strengthened their relations with parents, teachers, and students.

In Texas, as Hurricane Harvey lingered over the state, dumping rain and causing massive flooding at the end of August, the 52,000-student Klein Independent school district used social media “as a distributive hub,” creating a public Google Doc school officials could update with information on shelters, relief, and school closures, said Justin Elbert, the district’s community relations manager. Every Twitter update from the district linked back to the document.

Later, the district used Blackboard’s ParentLink—a text, email, and phone notification system—to poll parents about whether their children would be able to return to school, said Denise McLean, Klein’s communications manager.

The district also responded to tweets and Facebook comments it received. Overall, the district answered more than 1,000 messages from parents and students, often providing emergency rescue information, like contact numbers for the U.S. Coast Guard, added Elbert.

Other educators used technology to help with rescues. After Harvey besieged his community, Kenneth Henry, the principal of Duryea Elementary School, in the Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District, relied on a messaging platform, Remind 101—which he typically employs to notify teachers about meetings—to communicate with school staff and arrange to help them. When he heard that a teacher and her family were flooded and couldn’t leave their home, he enlisted help and showed up with a boat.

Another Texas principal, Kristen Eriksen, of Sunset Valley Elementary in the Keller school district, just north of Dallas, used a Facebook educational leadership group page and Google Docs to launch an “adopt a school” initiative to help bring needed supplies to flooded-out schools across the state.

In Florida, the 193,000-student Palm Beach County, district sent out robo-calls to parents and staff simultaneously as the hurricane approached and throughout the storm and its aftermath, landing with 90 percent accuracy because the district had taken time at the start of the school year to weed out incorrect numbers, said spokeswoman Amity Schuyler.

The district, which sustained minimal structural damage and planned to re-open its schools on Sept. 18, also relied heavily on tweets and Facebook posts delivered in English, Spanish, and Haitian Creole to get messages to parents.

Social media “allows for interaction,” Schuyler said, “and we can see if there is confusion about our message, and clarify quickly.”

District officials are worried about missed instructional time and have used social media to share some educational information and websites with content about science and hurricanes. Schuyler said the district would soon start messaging parents, providing them with links to academic materials and encouraging their children to read. “Seven days without daily reading is an issue, especially in the beginning of the school year,” she said.

Lost Power, Lost Opportunity

In Texas, Hurricane Harvey swooped in before the first day of classes at Groves Elementary School in the 40,000-student Humble Independent school district. Second grade teacher Shanna Lumpkin reached out to parents via the app ClassDojo, which has a parent-notification tool, to make sure they knew school was canceled. As she waited out the storm at home, she saw some educators using Facebook Live videos to interact with students.

So she put makeup on for the first time in four days, picked up a book, and turned on her phone camera. She read the book she had been planning to read on the first day of school, What Do You Do With a Problem? by Kobi Yamada. Using Facebook Live, Lumpkin read a story to her students every day for the 10 days school was closed. She wrote updates to her students using ClassDojo and sent students their login information to a math game program she planned to use in class.

“It helped me, mentally, to connect and stay thinking forward and thinking positively,” she said.

Ann Levett, the superintendent of Georgia’s Savannah-Chatham County district, showed similar resolve. After losing electricity at home after Hurricane Irma, Levett used backup battery chargers for her devices to post information on Facebook and Twitter with alerts about school closures, hurricane warnings, and safety tips.

The district’s website and social media pages were constantly updated and included a list of educational web sites for students to use, like Khan Academy, Read Theory, and Moby Max. The sites had previously been used by some students in the district, but new postings also included detailed instructions on how students could create free accounts in case they were new to the sites or forgot their passwords.

“What I’ve learned about social media is that parents and students are using it all the time,” Levett said. “I decided if I wanted them to get the right information, I need to use what they use.”

But school officials also found that, in many cases, their ability to access and deliver digital lessons was scuttled by a more fundamental problem: the loss of power. As of late last week, more than 1 million people in Florida were still without electricity. The lack of power and internet service was a major factor in the state’s largest provider of online courses, the Florida Virtual School, choosing to remain closed until this week, said spokeswoman Tania Clow.

Many of Texas’ brick-and-mortar schools are still shuttered. But the Texas Online Preparatory School, part of the Texas Virtual Schools Network, has seen interest in its programs surge in the weeks since Harvey made landfall, said Charles Smith, the head of school at TOPS.

TOPS, which uses curriculum and services provided by commercial education company K12, is a virtual school for grades 3-12 with 1,800 students. TOPS and other virtual schools within the Texas network are public school options within the state education system, and are free for students to attend. While TOPS normally sees a spike in applications at the beginning of the school year, they saw about 600 more applications this year than they were expecting, Smith said.

However, about 10 percent of the TOPS’ students were unable to take classes in the days after Harvey, due to power outages and property loss, Smith said.

Some district leaders are trying to find the silver lining in the disruptions. Alberto M. Carvalho, the superintendent of the 345,000-student Miami-Dade County school district, which was aiming to re-open Sept. 18, noted that without power, students were finally paying attention to the world around them.

“It took #HurricaneIrma & power being out for kids to look up from their devices,” the schools chief tweeted last week. “Let’s talk to them. #DigitalDetox.”

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