A year of COVID: When virus hit, ‘we turned our board room into a war room’

  • Ana Queiroz, an IT support technician for the Concord School District, works in a conference room that serves as the headquarters for device repairs, in the basement of the district offices on Liberty Street in Concord on Friday. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Pam McLeod, director of technology at Concord School District, works in her office on Liberty Street on Friday. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 3/9/2021 4:21:29 PM

The first time Concord school administrators and digital learning specialists met last March to discuss an unfamiliar but growing threat known as the coronavirus, it was Friday the 13th.

District technology director Pam McLeod had heard rumblings about the disease, seen people wearing masks at the airport during February break. The first positive case in New Hampshire had been confirmed two weeks prior, on March 2. But administrators were still uncertain, inclined to wait for guidance from the state.

Just two days later, it became clear they could no longer wait. Digital learning specialists, administrators and teachers gathered on a Sunday to plan for something previously unprecedented in education.

“We turned our Board Room into a war room,” McLeod said. “We went in planning mode, and that was the day the governor announced we would be going into remote learning.”

Located on the basement level of the school district’s Liberty Street headquarters, McLeod and her team are the engine that powers the district. In her office, one of the few basement rooms that gets sunshine streaming in each day, McLeod has a standing desk, a whiteboard scrawled with notes covering half the wall, and several screens of various sizes going at once.

McLeod, who has worked in the district for seven years, has been on the front lines of the shift to remote and hybrid learning in Concord this year. Her staff, while small, manages a vast technological environment.

“We have 6,500 devices in the district, and we’re running with a staff of six,” McLeod said. “If you compare it to other industries, we run a fraction of an IT staff that most industries would run.”

School technology departments like Concord’s faced extra pressure in the last year as remote learning requires more personal devices, more software programs and more IT support services than ever before. Plus the switch was immediate.

“They have been instrumental to the success of remote learning, no doubt about it,” said interim Superintendent Kathleen Murphy. “Everyone should be grateful for that level of expertise that they have brought to the district.”

Recalling the events of the spring, McLeod said Concord was more prepared than many districts to go remote – they already had personal, take-home devices for each grade level except kindergarten – but shifting learning completely online was a new concept.

“Schools have always been a face-to-face endeavor,” McLeod said. “It’s that sort of mental shift from, ‘it’s nice to have things mobile but we don’t really need it,’ to all of a sudden, ‘we really need it.’ ”

Equity of digital access was one of the first challenges for the district. Even with school-provided devices, McLeod estimates about 5-7% of students didn’t have WiFi access at home. She worked with at least 100 families to help them connect with low-cost options, like Comcast’s Internet Essentials program. For families who are unhoused or out of service range, they provided mobile hotspots – about a dozen total. For one Concord High family who lives in Deerfield, outside mobile service range, McLeod said they tried out all three major network providers before they found the one that worked best.

School staff members, many of whom used desktop computers at work, needed new remote laptops to be able to work at home, but COVID created a scarcity of personal devices. One weekend, McLeod said, she had technology department employees “fan out” to different area stores to “just buy up everything they had.”

When CHS’s socially-distant graduation rolled around, the department, with the help of ConcordTV, rigged up a point-to-point wireless internet solution at Memorial Field, connected to an antenna on the roof of the high school that could live stream the ceremony.

Over the summer, McLeod oversaw implementation of a new phone system that was mobile. Based on teacher feedback from the spring semester, the district decided to move forward with Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Google Meets for lessons and meetings. They switched their communications platform to ParentSquare. They also ordered new Chromebooks for the High School. The devices arrived just barely in time for the start of school in August.

“We were lucky,” McLeod said. “Many school districts are still, right now, waiting to receive Chromebooks that they ordered last May or June.”

The department hired three new technicians who repair devices, install the software, troubleshoot problems and manage the transfer of devices to and from students and staff. All repairs are done in-house, something Murphy said is a significant cost-savings for the district.

“They’ve been really, really incredibly helpful because I only had two technicians to serve the entire district,” McLeod said. “As you can imagine, they’re stretched pretty thin.”

The board room of the district building on Liberty Street became a technology staging area, stacked with new replacement laptops, high school Chromebooks and kindergarten iPads. The technicians operated a repair shop out of that room, which has an outside door so parents, students or staff members could do drive-up tech appointments.

Ana Queiroz, one of the IT support technicians who was hired new this year, recalled they had two long tables stacked with laptops, labeled and ready for teachers to pick up.

“It was all of us sitting around, answering calls, passing computers around to each other to fix stuff, people would come in often,” Queiroz said. “It was very hectic but it worked out really well.”

As the district decided to switch from remote to hybrid learning in October, McLeod decided to increase the district’s bandwidth level, to make sure the process was seamless.

Synchronous remote learning, which is the norm now at Concord, is still a work in progress for the technology department. Students at home Zoom in to the classroom, to an in-person class that’s in session. They’re still trying out different audio and video equipment and still trying to find the right microphone to pick up the audio for the students in the back of the classroom.

McLeod frequently collaborates and shares ideas with other school technology directors outside Concord. She is the co-founder of the New Hampshire CTO Council, an association for school technology leadership. She said the group has been an important resource for area school technology directors this year, many of whom work solo in their districts.

“We try to support each other. It’s a stressful job, it’s been very stressful over the past year,” McLeod said. “We’re seeing a lot of burnout and a lot of people leaving education. We try to at least provide that emotional support and show people they’re not alone in this.”

McLeod said she feels good about her department’s work so far this year, and said despite the stress and the extra workload, the district staff has worked well together to launch a new mode of education.

“We’ve collaborated well between technology and curriculum. We certainly had challenges,” McLeod said. “I think we’ve been able to keep cool and triage and just try to solve one problem at a time and put one foot in front of the other and keep going.”

Eileen O

Eileen O'Grady is a Report for America corps member covering education for the Concord Monitor since spring 2020. O’Grady is the former managing editor of Scope magazine at Northeastern University in Boston, where she reported on social justice issues, community activism, local politics and the COVID-19 pandemic. She is a native Vermonter and worked as a reporter covering local politics for the Shelburne News and the Citizen. Her work has also appeared in The Boston Globe, U.S. News & World Report, The Bay State Banner, and VTDigger. She has a master’s degree in journalism from Northeastern University and a bachelor’s degree in politics and French from Mount Holyoke College, where she served as news editor for the Mount Holyoke News from 2017-2018.

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