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K-12 IT Director Looks Back on How His District Made It Work During COVID-19

Riverside School District IT Director, Eric Rux, compares COVID-19 to the eruption of MT. St. Helens and talks about how he and his fellow staff made a smooth shift to online learning. 

By: Eric Rux | IT Director, Riverside School District, WA

 

The Impending Eruption

March 12th, 2020 was the start of a wild ride that still isn’t over. Late that evening, I received a text from our superintendent, Dr. Ken Russell:

“I’d like you to meet me at the district office in the morning. We’re riding together to a meeting with the other area superintendents to discuss COVID-19 and how this is going to affect our district,” the message said. 

Like many schools our size, I wear a few hats on top of being an IT Director. For this meeting, I guessed that I would be wearing my “Safety Director” hat. What neither of us knew at the time was that in less than 24 hours Washington governor, Jay Inslee, would close all K-12 schools in the state, requiring us all to wear hats that we didn’t even know existed. 

The meeting started promptly at 9:00 AM. After the usual pleasantries, we were joined (via Zoom) by a representative of the Spokane Regional Health District. We learned what COVID-19 is, why it’s dangerous, and how we all need to work together to “flatten the curve.” Many people were going to become sick with this novel disease. The key was that not all of them become sick at the same time, overrunning the healthcare system. By the end of the meeting, it was clear that all schools in Washington would be closing – our school included. We just didn’t know when.  

No students in school. No teachers. No English or Algebra. No band. No woodshop. No track, baseball, soccer, or tennis. When was the last time that something like this had happened? In our area, the closest event would probably be May 18th, 1980; the day Mt. St. Helens blew over 500 million tons of ash across Washington state. Now, overwhelmed with questions and uncertainty, all we could do was wait for the final, official word from the governor. 

Almost exactly 40 years before the global outbreak of coronavirus, Mt. St Helens in southwest Washington state erupted, throwing a boil plume of ash 15 miles into the sky. “It seemed apocalyptic,” said one witness, mirroring how many talk about the pandemic.

As Dr. Russell and I got back into the district vehicle for the 45-minute drive back to the school, we just looked at each other. This was really happening. Without saying a word we both grabbed our phone and started making calls to our teams. The first order of business was to gather all of the education stakeholders together to start creating a plan. As soon as Governor Inslee made the official announcement later in the day, we would have problems to solve and we needed our best in the room. 

One of the first issues that needed to be solved was remote learning, what we soon coined as Riverside Learns​. Fortunately for the middle and high school, we have been a partner with FireFly Computers for quite a few years. They were a pivotal partner as we transitioned to Riverside Learns

 

RSD + FireFly

Years prior, when our voters approved a capital levy to purchase 1:1 Chromebooks, the Director of Technology at Medical Lake School District, Trevor Meade, called me and recommended FireFly for K-12 Chrome deployment. “​You can’t go wrong with FireFly,” he said. “They’ll treat you right and because they’re a part of the NCPA Contract the purchase process is really streamlined​.” Trevor was right, and the NCPA contract made it easy for our business manager to make purchases of new devices. 

The partnership with FireFly goes way beyond just buying new technology. If there’s a warranty issue with any of the Chromebooks in our fleet, we simply send them back to FireFly using the packaging that they provide. They even do repairs. It couldn’t be any easier. 

One of FireFly trained and specialized technicians performing Chromebook repairs.

Set Up for a Smooth Transition

Having Chromebooks already deployed for grades 7-12 made all the difference for Riverside School District when we had to disperse our student body in mid-March. Our teachers and students have been using the Canvas Learning Management System (LMS) from Instructure for the past four years. Couple an organized LMS with 1:1 devices in students’ hands, and we were prepared for a smooth transition to remote learning.

For our students in elementary, we adapted our technology plan quickly, dismantling classroom Chromebook carts and issuing them to students without a computing device at home. Everyone who needed a device received one. 

 

What We Learned

Was remote learning as good as being in a seat in a classroom in front of a teacher? No. But as we wind down this school year, I look back at what made a terrible situation actually work for our students. 

First and foremost, I have to give enormous credit to our teachers. Nobody wanted to teach while physically away from their students, but they worked hard and did it anyway. And it wasn’t just the teachers, either. Our paraeducators, bus drivers, food service workers, maintenance department, IT administrators, secretaries, nurses, principals…… EVERYONE helped to make it work. Each member of the Riverside staff kept their “can do” attitude throughout this crisis and put our students and community first.

Riverside School District teachers quickly rallied to shift their courses online. Without their enormous efforts to put together stellar remote education, RSD’s 1:1 devices would have been powerless in their distance learning plan.

The preparation for this pandemic didn’t start this year; it has been years in the making – we just didn’t know it. Having an engaged Technology Board that helped make the decision to implement an LMS and 1:1 devices for our students was imperative. Our teachers dove in headfirst and agreed that we needed to work towards discontinuing traditional textbooks and move to an online curriculum. 

Finally, our Administrators and School Board were the leaders that we needed to bring it all home. When the Board asked me in March, “Eric – are we ready for remote learning?”…..  I felt pretty good about our position. Now we are taking the lessons learned the past three months and updating our processes, policies, and procedures in case we are required to return to remote learning in the fall. My hope is that we can return to school with everyone physically in their desk – but I want to be prepared in case this isn’t possible.

For our students, having a reliable Chromebook to use for online learning was essential. Thank you to FireFly for your help both before, during, and after this pandemic. We may have been able to do this without you, but I wouldn’t have wanted to.

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