Uncharted Waters

Uncharted Waters

COVID-19 Leads to Education Sea Change

A quote from President Franklin D. Roosevelt hangs on the wall of Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Dr. Bryan Johnson’s office. It reads: “A smooth sea never made a skilled sailor.” 

Since 2017 Johnson has led the school district through difficult waters. Under his leadership and with guidance from the school board, Hamilton County Schools’ 44,500 students have made dramatic academic gains; innovative Future Ready Institutes engage students and prepare them for the future; and the district became the world leader in digital fabrication labs. Equally important, Johnson’s #ExpectExcellence mantra is taking root. System culture is changing. Teachers and leaders are uniting under a shared ideal. 

Throughout the 2019-2020 academic year, teachers and students worked diligently to accelerate student achievement. Things were going well. District-wide benchmark assessments indicated that students were mastering standards and continuing the system’s upward trajectory. But in the spring of 2020, Johnson recognized clouds forming on the horizon. COVID-19 was spreading around the world and navigating the unimagined was suddenly his top priority. 

Vanderbilt University announced a switch to online classes March 9. Harvard University and NYU followed suit March 10. Johnson’s team made the difficult decision to close school buildings on March 12. What wasn’t difficult: knowing that student learning had to continue.

Team Response

“In early March we began discussing what a shift on online learning would look like,” says Johnson. “It never crossed my mind to close up shop. I was disappointed other school systems chose to pause.”  

Rather than pause, HCS leadership worked tirelessly to create teacher supports for the transition, ensure students had access to computers and internet, meet student nutrition needs, and keep everyone – parents, students, teachers, and the community – informed as the plans evolved day by day. 

Perhaps the most unique choice for communication was a weekly PBS broadcast. Each Monday for three weeks Johnson and other district leaders gave updates, answered questions from an on-air phone bank, and encouraged everyone to give themselves and others grace in uncertain times. 

“The PBS broadcasts were the right thing to do for the community,” Johnson explains. “Remote learning and stay-at-home recommendations were a significant break from what we are used to. When faced with ‘second-order’ change, people perceive disorder, they crave input and communication, and they need reassurance that the underlying culture remains the same. We used the broadcasts to communicate in a familiar way with people and hear their concerns. That accessibility led to greater comfort for our community in a difficult time”

Prepared for Rough Seas

Years of investment and relationship building positioned Hamilton County Schools to persevere while other systems floundered. First, over the last two years the school board had invested in one-to-one technology for all students in grades 6 through 12. In addition, Johnson had implemented a system-wide learning management system for teachers. 

“We were in good shape for a system of our size,” he says. 

But technology without connectivity is useless, and gaps quickly became obvious. That’s where community partnerships came in. “I felt a level of peace knowing that we have great community partners,” Johnson says. “I was confident we could engage them and get support quickly.”

Much like securing time on PBS, Johnson’s team reached out to The Enterprise Center and Chattanooga 2.0 to help younger students secure laptops. EPB, working with the Enterprise Center, significantly expanded their free public wifi network, with over 100 new hotspots near schools and neighborhoods. Staples provided free printing for student learning packets. Meanwhile, community volunteers showed up to help staff pack and distribute 10,000 student meals week after week. 

Always Looking Forward

While Hamilton County Schools is still in the midst of COVID-19, and Johnson continues to look toward the horizon. 

“I think education will be transformed forever,” he says. “Lots of what we’ve been talking about and taking baby steps toward, the challenges and change that we put on a shelf – we’re forced to address it now.” 

He says now it’s obvious that take-home technology and reliable WiFi are a must for students and teachers. While his team has been in contact with 99 percent of students since the closure, some schools have had as few as 40 percent of students actually participate in online learning due to connectivity and family issues. Mobile hotspots won’t support students over the long run. 

“Mobile hotspots are a stop-gap,” he says. “How do we make sure all 44,500 students have access to the internet from their front door?” 

Johnson also expects that teachers will change the way they use technology in daily teaching, including techniques such as “Flipped Classroom,” in which a teacher records foundational lessons on video for students to watch at home. Then classroom time can be used for higher-level application of new concepts. 

“Teacher and leader training and support is critical moving forward,” he says. “We need a common professional knowledge across the system to ensure that every teacher has a deep understanding of how to integrate technology into their craft.”

Making Way

Johnson’s skill as a leader has been elevated throughout this unprecedented storm. While looking to the long-term, he is also fully present in developing plans for this summer. 

Plans in development align with Johnson’s commitment to putting student learning at the forefront. The community can expect innovative solutions with emphasis on supporting schools and students with known learning gaps.

“We will always be intentional about student learning,” Johnson says. “I give credit to our parents and guardians for their efforts during this time, and know that the community’s value and appreciation of teachers has increased as they have persevered in the midst of crisis and change.”

Dr. Bryan Johnson was named a “Leader to Learn From” by Education Week in 2020. Read more about his approach to leadership here. 

You can learn more about Hamilton County Schools’ response to COVID-19 at their website