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USS Gerald R. Ford

CA Curious

Turning on a dime: Transitioning to a virtual school environment

April 30, 2020

Turning on a dime. I have been thinking about this expression a lot lately.  

Consider a large aircraft carrier—and what it must take to maneuver a turn quickly. It is quite a feat, made all the more impressive when you consider that a ship like the USS Gerald R. Ford displaces 100,000 tons of water and takes a crew of 5,000 to pull it off.  

While not the size of an aircraft carrier, in recent weeks, Cary Academy has been maneuvering to accomplish a similar feat.   

When news of the novel coronavirus started to make waves, Information Services began thinking through what it would look like for some members of our community if they could not be on campus for a couple of weeks. There was no real concern about classes continuing because, while it would be an inconvenience, we had the tech in place to accommodate those who would not be able to return to campus. 

When it looked like school was going to potentially delay returning from break for a couple of days, the team was curious what that might look like. Again, we were confident that, even though students may not be returning, we had all the necessary tools in place to stay on course. Nothing too much to worry about; we would have to make slight changes in our heading, but, surely, it would only be a slight detour.  

We immediately started making plans for students to bring in their machines to get fixed before classes started. We ordered protective gloves and cleaning supplies to wipe down machines before working on them. Realizing the importance of being here for our CA community, we created a schedule so someone from our team would be on campus for those who needed them.  

When I left work that Friday afternoon, I knew that we had done all we could to prepare for the next two weeks to support our teachers and students. On the academic front, we were confident that, during this time, CA teachers would be comfortable moving forward from a technical and pedagogical standpoint.  

Again, inconvenienced? Yes. Dead in the water?  No.  

Then, the stay-at-home order came down. And what we hoped was going to be a two-week inconvenience suddenly loomed much larger. Our entire educational system was asked to turn on a dime. Issues regarding equity, online security, and what the rest of the school year would look like, took front and center in a more significant way.  

There was no question whether CA academics would continue through the remainder of the year. Instead, the question became: how can we change our course of direction to meet the needs of the CA  community? 

And this is when I started thinking about schools as a whole. And how incredibly lucky we are to be part of the CA community, where the creative and thoughtful integration of technology has always been directly tied to our school mission statement: discovery, innovation, collaboration, and excellence.  

Put simply: we are a tech-savvy school. Cloud computing, asynchronous education, and virtual meetings have long been incorporated into the CA environment through Office365, our blended classes, and business practices.  

While moving the entire community to a virtual environment had never been part of the master plan, thankfully, many of the tools and experience required to do so were already in place. And that has allowed us to make what would otherwise be a very difficult transition as smoothly as possible.  

We were able to move quickly, reconfiguring and changing how we utilize resources like Blackbaud and MS Teams. We leveraged existing policies and procedures for those who needed to have physical repairs done to the computers.  And we expanded the purpose of technologies that we had been using elsewhere—like Zoom—to bring them into the classroom.   

Of course, while our technological readiness helped to ease the initial transition, it does not mean that we would not encounter some rough seas that we will have to work through. While our laptop program enables everyone to have what they need to work virtually, it is not without challenges.  

Issues that might have been easily handled pre-COVID—how to best support those individuals that experience computer issues—become more complex with mounting and constantly-evolving security protocols that require on-campus technical support amidst social distancing concerns.  

So, what have we done? How are we helping to turn the ship? 

Our community’s online security remains a paramount concern. And we have been reviewing security policies to ensure that we are maximizing ways for us to be safe while using new technologies.  

We do not all have the same consistent internet connection or availability, so we are monitoring the few community members that may need additional support to establish a solid connection. And we’re investigating alternative options, should we find ourselves in a similar situation next school year.  

Knowing how personal and overwhelming tech issues can be, we’ve created a virtual helpdesk conference room for community members to drop in for virtual face-to-face support.  

Just like it takes 5,000 crew members to run the carrier, it takes all of us working together to provide the best for our community. I could not be prouder to be a part of the CA crew and to have the privilege of leading an incredible team who continue to do everything they can to keep our engines running smoothly.  

And while I do not know exactly what the near future is going to look like, I am confident that we have the systems in place to support our students’ learning– whatever form that may take.  

Written by Karen McKenzie, Director of Innovation & Technology

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