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Dallas Makes a Smooth Transition to At-Home Learning

  • The coronavirus pandemic has forced the nation’s urban school districts to transition to online learning abruptly and with little time to plan.

    And while many school systems are making tremendous strides in this area, Dallas Independent School District stands out as a large district comparatively well prepared for the emergency.  

    The 155,000-student school system began at-home learning for all middle and secondary students on March 23, an early start made possible by actions taken 18 months ago. In the fall of 2018, Dallas school officials began implementing the district’s Long-Range Technology Master Plan, which called for every middle and high school student to have a tablet or laptop.  Chromebooks were distributed to students in grades 6-12 before spring break began on March 16.

    “We started in a good position because we had already invested in 1:1 devices for all of our secondary students,” said Jack Kelanic, chief technology officer for the Dallas school system, in an interview with the Urban Educator. “Students from 20 of our high schools were already taking devices home so we just ramped up our efforts.”

    Chromebooks were distributed to students in grades 6-12 before spring break began on March 16, because administrators knew there was a strong chance the district would not reopen due to the coronavirus. For those students who had yet to receive a device, the district worked with each school to facilitate pickups of computer devices during food distributions. 

    “We handed out the technology at the same time that we were handing out food,” said Kelanic. “We ended up distributing 70,000-80,000 devices to students in grades 6-12.”

    Providing Internet Access 

    On March 20 the district distributed a survey, and responses from 18,000 families revealed that about 30 percent of district households did not have internet access.

    So, at its meeting held the next week, the Board of Trustees unanimously approved up to $2.5 million to purchase mobile hotspots, which provide access to high-speed internet.

    In addition, the Dallas Education Foundation participated in fundraising with the business community to purchase additional hotspots, contributing almost a half-million dollars to the effort. 

    As a result, 15,000 mobile hotspots were ordered and were being  distributed in April to district households that lacked internet access.

    In an effort to ensure students’ security and privacy, Dallas school officials installed software called iboss on all student devices that included security and content filtering to protect students’ online safety.

    Digital Curriculum

    On the curriculum front, the Dallas IT department worked closely with the district’s Teaching and Learning Department to provide students with a digital curriculum, which was delivered using PowerSchool learning management system and Google classroom. 

    Approximately 50 instructional applications can be accessed by students through the Clever portal using the student’s username and password.

    Prior to spring break and immediately thereafter, teachers received training and lesson plans on the learning management platforms, with more than 8,000 teachers trained over a period of two weeks.

    “We know by looking at our dashboards and our data sources that we had more than 90,000 students participate in online learning over the first two weeks and that's before we got these additional hotspots and computing equipment out there,” said Kelanic.

    Providing support has been crucial, with the district creating a call center for employees, students and parents to get assistance as well as a website to guide at-home learning

    “Our team has been very intentional over the past 18 months to deploy one-to-one devices for all secondary students," Dallas Schools Superintendent Michael Hinojosa said in an email to the Urban Educator. "While we sped up the timeline for some campuses due to this public health emergency, we believe our initial plan helped us stay ahead of the curve. It also accounts for how we have maintained a student participation rate of more than 98 percent since at-home learning began.”

    During the first week of online learning, the number of calls for assistance  were in the thousands, according to Robyn Harris, the district’s director of news and information.  By the end of the second week, there was a notable decrease in the number of calls. 

    “This was a telltale sign that people are less anxious and they have a little bit more information and they know what the expectation is,” Harris told the Urban Educator. “So we're not seeing as much a concern when it comes to the at-home learning component.”

    The Future of Online Education

    In late April, Dallas officials had not decided when schools would reopen but Kelanic said his department realized there was a strong chance that students would not come back this school year. “So we're prepared to see this thing through even if it goes into next school year,” he said.

    The district planned to begin providing computer devices for students in grades 3-5 either by mail or by sending them via a courier service to households so families would not have to leave their homes.

    While the Dallas school system appeared to be a lot further along in the distance-learning process than many school districts, it still has faced the challenge of providing internet access in a district where more than 90 percent of students are eligible for free- and reduced-price lunches.

    Through district partnerships with the 1Million Project Foundation and the Verizon Innovative Learning Schools, 9,000 students have received cellular-enabled devices and free mobile hotspots.

    “We’ve made big strides but we still have more work to do,” said Kelanic.

    Despite the upheaval experienced by students, families and employees, Kelanic said he believed the online learning experience would very possibly  change education in the district—and across the country. 

    “I think it's proven that we can do this and that digital education works,” said Kelanic. “So I do think that in the long run you will see more virtual education programs and online, personalized learning opportunities for kids and maybe even different types of models for schools that we don't currently have in place right now.”

    Click here to download a list of urban school district’s remote learning plans.