This article is part of a new series about how IMESD Departments have adapted their work during the COVID-19 emergency.
Worldwide, the COVID-19 pandemic has changed many things about the ways people work. Millions more people working from home means increased technology needs. What does this mean for an IT Department in Eastern Oregon?
As one of the two largest departments at the IMESD, the IT Department’s 40 employees work in five counties to support hundreds of customers including school districts and entrepreneurial customers like city and county governments and nonprofit agencies. IT staff manage networks, monitor connectivity, maintain thousands of devices, and help people manage technology solutions and more.
On March 12th, Oregon Governor Kate Brown ordered school districts in Oregon to close due to the COVID-19 pandemic. At first, districts were to provide “supplemental” learning. Many of IMESD’s 18 school districts started distributing hundreds of Chromebooks to their students. And this meant hundreds of families trying to connect to learning resources.
Cheri Rhinhart, Director of IT, said that even if students’ households have robust Internet access, sometimes technology still has challenges. “We are talking about lots of parents trying to help students, sometimes multiple siblings in one home, connecting to learning. For families who may also be struggling with general COVID-19 induced stress, this could be a challenge,” Rhinhart said.
So, the IT Department created a brand new Student and Family Technology Support Line with a dedicated 888 number. They started staffing it from 8:00 AM to 5:00 PM. Karen Smelser, IT Operations Analyst, said during the first three weeks of the support line, “daily calls were coming in fast and furious.” Currently in week five, the support line has received about 245 calls. She also said there is voice mail for Spanish speakers so two IT staff fluent in Spanish can call families back to provide technical assistance. If Smelser or another staff member is unable to resolve the issue during the call, a Helpdesk ticket is created for the local district technicians to provide assistance. Smelser said calls to the support line have leveled off in the last few weeks, but multiple calls are still received daily.
Around the same time, hundreds of IMESD employees were instructed to start working from home. They also needed support – how to connect, how to access the ESD network remotely, how to coordinate a Zoom meeting and more. Again, IT staff were there to help.
On April 8th, when the governor announced the school closures were for the rest of this academic year, the IT Department was ready. The same day, the Oregon Department of Education announced the change from “supplemental” learning to “distance learning for all”. This was more robust learning, potentially meaning more robust technology. Now, students and their parents were logging into multiple teacher and learning platforms like Google Classroom, Seesaw, Acellus, Canvas and more. Some households were using a Chromebook, a tablet or iPad, a laptop and maybe even cell phones.
Some households had no Internet connection at all, which required IT and school districts to find portable hotspots to provide or place in community spaces in towns. “Our districts are in rural Oregon with a lot of wide-open spaces. Some of those spaces simply don’t have Internet connectivity. Helping students navigate these issues are all part of how we are supporting learning during this time,” Rhinhart said.
Besides supporting ESD staff and students, the other large piece of support that IT is now providing is Zoom meetings. Districts need remote meetings for administrators, staff, professional learning communities and school boards. This involves how to set up secure meetings that also allow for public input, how to make sure people can connect to the meeting, how to coordinate audio and screen sharing and more.
Monday, May 11th marked the start of the ninth week of navigating teleworking, at-home learning and meeting remotely. The Student/Family support line now only receives a few calls a day.
In a world where we are required to stay apart, helping people connect is rewarding, says IT Director Rhinhart. “While it may not be the same as actually being together, even a smiling face on a screen, especially from a teacher to a student, is a great thing to help make happen.”