Episode 1: Rising to the Challenge – Wayne Twp COVID Response feat. CTO Pete Just

  • Zack:

Today’s episode we’ll be tuning into a conversation I recently had with Pete Just, Chief Technology Officer for the Metropolitan School District of Wayne Township in Indianapolis as we looked back at March and how this large school district took on all the various challenges of the pandemic.


  • Pete:

…But we didn’t have enough devices to take care of all those primary students because five or four in a room doesn’t take care of the 22 students that might be in there, so there’s a problem.  The students went home in two days. We didn’t have time to get their chromebooks out of the carts or know that they were charged. Or we had to get the adapters out of the carts. That took a couple of days. So what we were doing, we were doing a system where the parents were picking up packets and we called it packet distribution and we eventually wove in you could pick up your chromebooks when you pick up your packets this week. So we did get the chromebooks out that were in carts, but we were short on all the preschool, kindergarten, first grade, second grade devices and we didn’t have any for the high school. So in the month of April we had a program that we had been running for probably 14 years called ‘Bridging the Gap’, and basically what we did with that program was we said, “Look, we’ve got a bunch of 5 year old computers. They don’t work well on the network anymore, but, you know what, they probably (if we load up some freeware and took them back to their original OS) we could give them to you. So the board approved that 15 years ago. So we had been doing that. So we started using chromebooks we had started at either 3 or 4 years– basically ‘Bridging the Gap’ was a part of the chromebook program. So if you were in high school or junior high, after 3 years that became part of your family, if you will. And in elementary school where they were in carts, we got an extra year out of them and after 4 years they would become part of ‘Bridging the Gap’. So we did have some of those out in the community. And we had a number of other devices in carts. And we started giving those out to high school students and specifically targeting seniors because we didn’t want our seniors falling behind in the spring. So we had set up, basically, some lines to do– our high school is the biggest one of, well, either the biggest or second biggest depending on when renovations happen on any given year– high school in the state. It’s the largest high school in the state, let’s just say. So we have a lot of doors, a lot of drives that go by different areas of the school.  So we chose some of those to do a repair exchange program for students where we had hardware breaks and we basically took that broken device, gave them another one and just did an exchange because that was fast. And we would have anywhere from 70 to 250 of those in a 3 hour period.  And at another door, if you were a senior, we would give you a chromebook– or it was an older laptop that had a cloud ready OS on it.  And we would give that to you and that was just yours to do your work with.  So we just slowly started finding ways to repair devices that were broken so that students could stay engaged with the online components.  And then we slowly started getting things out the door for the high school students. So, in a nutshell, that all was an evolution of how we could support our students. And, of course, the ones that were broken we work with you guys at K12 Tech to get repaired and then those went back into rotation to be exchanged.  So that kind of summarizes how the spring went. I’ll pause for a minute


  • Zack:

Yeah, so I want to break up a little bit of what you said.  And the big thing and one thing I really loved about what you did in your guys’ organization was getting– these new students that were working from home– getting them hotspots. So can you explain how that worked? Did that come through the state? Did you work with another company to get those for the parents? How did that work?


  • Pete:

Yeah, so for the hotspots– we applied to a program three years ago called the Sprint One Million Program and received several hundred hotspots, but that was limited only to high school students. So we have a ninth grade center. We’ve got Ben Davis High School and Ben Davis University High School. Those students from those schools were able to take advantage of that program over the last several years. So they were pretty well equipped. We actually noticed that quite a few of them didn’t always get activated, so it might have been they had been taken as spares in case they needed the hotspot in case theirs went out or something. And then through the course of the end of the spring and through the summer, there was an organization that started here in Indianapolis called the Indianapolis e-Learning Fund.  And that really was a group of entrepreneurs and donors who really wanted to try and provide that access to students here in indianapolis. So they brought together all the CTOs in the city, so there’s 12 of us, and they said, “How can we help you?” And we said, “Well, we need hotspots ASAP. Number one, we can’t find them. Number two, we can’t afford them. So how can you help us?” So we put out an RFP. T Mobile won that RFP. That was RFP number one. And then we said, “What would be really great is if we could have some sort of city-wide wifi network.” And so we put out an RFP on that. And that got a little bit difficult– if you can imagine, if you understand much about what that would take from both a political and a technical perspective. It’s a massive undertaking. So, we knew that was a couple of years. So, we’re still hoping something will happen with that. We did receive bids back on that, but we really didn’t take action on that and haven’t at this time. But what we did get was a great deal from T Mobile.  So now I have 1,000 hotspots and, I think, as of this morning 780 of those were requested, so we have the ability to get 2,200 of those should we need them.


  • Zack:

Yeah, that’s incredible. I remember you guys were the first district to close down and I was in Waco, TX in the middle of March on vacation and everything shut down while I was there.  I wasn’t even sure if I was going to make it back.  And then I got back and we’re getting emails from every school– What do we do?  And it was just a time where there weren’t standard operating procedures for something like this. It was just like, what are you going to do? Do the best we can. And I really appreciate your guys’ response in some of these areas– understanding some students don’t have wifi and the device situation. Over the summer you guys ended up having to buy quite a few new units so you could get devices to each of your students for deployment. My question on that was– you obviously had some students who didn’t come back to school– how did it work for deploying your new units to students at the beginning of this school year? Obviously you’ve got devices that are too old needing to be replaced and students that are in school coming back, but then on the other side you had about 3,600 students that were ‘Wayne at Home.’ How did you guys facilitate getting the devices switched and getting them to the right students as you deployed this year?


  • Pete:

There’s a lot of logistics there that we probably can’t get into, but our approach as we were going through that process over the spring was– our cabinet is really great and our superintendent is fantastic and our board supports us so well– we pulled together as leaders and we said, “We need to develop committees.” We developed seven committees and those seven committees dealt with everything from ‘How do we keep students engaged?’ to ‘What do we do on the hardware side?’ to ‘What do we do with social emotional health?’ These seven areas kind of covered what we thought would be the key areas that we needed to understand more about. So they came back with a report and part of that was, “Look, we can’t maintain the models we used to have anymore. The world’s changed and so, therefore, we need to buy tablets for pre-k, kindergarten, first and second grade. We need to buy additional chromebooks to support those students in the high school. They’re going to go fully one-to-one for everybody from pre-k all the way up to 12th grade.” Now, we have allowed students to bring in their own devices the last 8 or 9 years because some students have preferences like that. But, we also know that we have a high degree of poverty in our district and as a result of that we need to provide devices and access as best we can. So I think 5,050 tablets were ordered and I ordered a total of another 7,000 chromebooks and those all were distributed. It took us about a month to get them all out to students, just because the volume was so huge. We do a lot of things on our own, but we like to partner with people who can help us make that smoother, so between your team at K12 Tech and our team at MSD Wayne, we were able to get those distributed– I think pretty quickly. I was really happy that we received them all because I still know people who are waiting now in November for stuff they put orders in on in May.


  • Zack:

Yeah, so for everybody that’s listening right now– this is toward the 2nd 3rd of November and I would say about 70% of schools that ordered new devices have not received them yet. And with delivery dates as late as February. So that was really shocking when we got that– you reached out to us and said, “Hey, we’re buying 8,000 new devices that we are going to ship to you and we need them ready in three weeks.” It was very fortunate, I feel like, after seeing where we are currently. But that was a really hard couple of months over the summer just not even knowing if stuff’s going to be delivered on time. And there was a lot of coordination on both sides. So I guess one of the final questions I have is– we are getting into the winter months, obviously covid is spiking again and now you’re 100% at home again; what is changing for you guys as you’re engaging with your students with technology right now? What are you doing to adapt to that?


  • Pete:

Well, we have been preparing for this through the summer because we knew we were eventually going to hit at least a cold season if not a rebound of COVID and we would need to keep people at home. Because it’s hard to tell, you know, whether that’s a cold or COVID. And, most importantly, with staff– when you have a staff member quarantined, essentially that’s 14 days you need a sub. You need to have some way for them to show up, so to speak, in the classroom.  All of our teachers have chromebooks as well as the PC on their desk, so you could take the chromebook home.  But you need a sub. And so, you know, one of the things we did early as we started the year was we started a fully online school where students could opt in called ‘Wayne At Home’. We were really surprised that almost 25% of our parents choose that option. So that also meant that those students have to have chromebooks and we also have to support them at home. Well, oh gosh, we’ve never done that before. So we started to figure out how to do that. We put out frequently asked questions so students could help themselves. We empowered teachers with some flow charts of here is what to do if this, then that. Just a 30 second triage type of a thing because some things are so simple you could solve it in 30 seconds or a minute and move on as opposed to trying to bring it some place and waste hours. So, a simple triage option. And then you also had the real deal hardware problems. Something fell down the stairs and the screen is cracked. And so between doing a chat support online to help kind of work through those issues and then also working with your team to do what we call ‘front porch pick up drop off loaner and repair program’, we were able to really support those students. So now as we shift into when everyone is remote again, we’ve had to rethink this just in the last week. We’ve been closed for about a week and a half. Basically because number one, in Marion county here in Indianapolis those COVID numbers are up through the roof, they’ve almost tripled, so the Marion County health commissioner said, “You’re all going to be closing by Thanksgiving.” But then the other problem we’ve had, like a lot of schools have, is we can’t find subs. And so we can’t staff our building. So for those two reasons, we had to shut down and go remote. And then to be able to support those students we still have staff in buildings. All our teachers are teaching from their classroom, our administrators are all in their offices. Our tech support members are in those buildings so we can support those teachers and make them successful. And then if a student has a broken device, we are working out this process that says– okay, bring it into the school and we’re going to do the triage up front, kind of like what k12 tech does on the front porch. If those folks are comfortable coming into the school, we’ll do that there at the front desk. We will give them a loaner and kind of the same type of program, just now dispersed among all 17 of our schools. 


  • Zack:

Yeah and it’s funny– we’ve been operating this business for 9 years and you get used to the day-to-day of students being in schools and you get used to, you know, these are the kinds of things I’m going to see and I’m going to see this many of them. And it’s been unique seeing devices be at home more and having them being used at home just how the breakages are different. One thing that is funny is it’s not really breakages that are spiking– it’s spills. It’s drinks are being spilled on devices. And it’s just funny thinking though– I always like to imagine what happened to this device– and it’s like, “Oh, people are just snacking like they aren’t able to at school,” and all these different things. It’s funny how as we go through these changes how just the environment that the device is in is going to change the condition it’s in at the end of the life, which, that’s going to be interesting as this continues over the next couple of years. So from beginning when COVID started to now and seeing into the future, do you have any advice for schools and tech directors specifically on what are some important things that– if you had to really sum it up– what are some important things they can do to prepare for the winter season, potential closings and the just making sure that the students are equipped at home?


  • Pete:

I think the biggest thing, Zack, is just to be observant and then to be a good listener. I like to come up with solutions and I think I know the problem, but at the end of the day if I solve a problem that doesn’t exist I’ve wasted a lot of energy and a lot of time and maybe a lot of money. So to be observant of what you are hearing. Have ears to the ground of what are you hearing from your teachers; what are they struggling with? Understanding– what are best practices? I think those things, when put against each other, really help you to provide the best support and the best educational opportunities and the best professional development. So I think that’s my biggest thing I’ve really understood is just to be observant and to try to find the opportunity that is really there and then to kind of put it out there and listen for the reverb of– is that really a problem and how can we help with that?  People won’t always know how to answer to the, ‘How can I help?’ question because they don’t know what the options are, but we can be that interpreter that can kind of help make what their problems are go away and try to meet their needs so that they can teach better. Because there are some obstructions that we need to get out of the way and there are some tools that we need to provide and I think being observant and listening is a very big key.


  • Zack:

Yeah, that’s awesome. Well, Pete, thank you so much for being on the podcast. I appreciate it and appreciate your time. For anybody listening, if you have any questions specifically please reach out and we have a team of tech directors that we work with and partner with and we’d love to create some SOP’s for people, like an FAQ for schools almost, that maybe don’t have this figured out yet or could just use some help. So I really appreciate it, Pete.


  • Pete:

Thanks a lot. Always a pleasure.


  • Zack:

Alright, thanks Pete.

Show transcript