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Want to Help Schools Closed by COVID-19? Don’t Pitch Them Right Now.

March 16, 2020
By Tony Wan

Want to Help Schools Closed by COVID-19? Don’t Pitch Them Right Now.

News that schools and districts across the country are closing campuses and preparing to transition their staff and students to online learning have led to a flurry of questions and, subsequently, people lending support.

Among them are companies directly reaching out to teachers and administrators, offering to help ease that transition. Often, these pitches entail free or discounted software for products ranging from instructional materials to virtual conferencing tools.

But during these first few days of schools moving online, educators are adjusting to a new—and likely chaotic—environment. On short notice, they’re scrambling to make new plans, schedules and communication routines, and ensuring that students and families are supported in non-academic but life-essential areas, such as providing meals.

So the deluge of pitches could well add to the noise. And seem annoying, to say the least, to educators who have more important things to attend to.

“I appreciate hearing from vendors and partners who simply want to let me know they are available for whatever I need,” said Susan Enfield, superintendent of Highline Public Schools in Washington, in an email to EdSurge. “I do not appreciate hearing from vendors whom I don’t know pitching me their product or service at a time when I don’t have time for distractions. And that is all they are right now, distractions.”

Highline Public Schools, near Seattle, serves some of the earliest- and hardest-hit areas affected by the spread of the coronavirus. The district announced on March 11 that it was preparing to close its schools, which serve more than 17,000 students.

To education companies seeking to help, Enfield added she “would start by quoting Rick Hess [director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute], who recently wrote that ‘this is not the moment for marketing.’ Amen to that.”

Chris Lehmann, principal and CEO of Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia, has an even blunter message: “Don’t pitch right now. Be of service. Know the difference,” he said.

He issued an even starker warning on Twitter: “Seriously, if you are an edu-vendor right now and you are trying to capitalize on this moment by saying NOW is the time to buy your stuff, I am going to put you on a ‘Never Purchase’ list.”

For school and district leaders laying the basic groundworks for online communications and routines, trying and testing new products is likely the last thing on their minds. “This is not the time for me to be researching and exploring tools,” said Stacey Roshan, a math teacher and director of innovation and educational technology at the Bullis School in Maryland.

“I need to focus my energy on preparing resources to help the teachers I work with be ready to go virtual,” she added. “As my school is going virtual, I know that moving my face-to-face course online will not be seamless in any way.”

Since a main part of her role is to assess technology products for use in her school, Roshan said she’s used to quickly filtering out the pitches she’s not interested in. Still, she appreciates the sentiment from company officials. “I feel like everyone is pulling together right now and doing the best they can to help one another. For that, I’m definitely grateful.”

She added that the most helpful kinds of emails from vendors are ones that are paired with remote teaching and learning resources that are agnostic to specific products.

Will Deyamport III, the district instructional technologist at Hattiesburg Public School District in Mississippi, reiterates that this is not the best time for new technology implementations. “Now is not the time to roll out a bunch of user accounts without knowing where the students are, the comfort level of their teachers with teaching with technology, and the capabilities of the district’s technology department,” he said.

As news of school closures accelerated, there have been a growing number of efforts to collect and share offerings from companies that want to help impacted schools. A Facebook group, Amazing Educational Resources, has compiled a spreadsheet of more than 400 free offerings. NewSchools Venture Fund, a nonprofit philanthropy that funds schools and educational companies, has also started a list.

Another effort is Learning Keeps Going, a collaborative initiative from ISTE (EdSurge’s parent organization), Digital Promise, CoSN and others that aims to curate online resources and tools from educators and companies.

Deyamport III noted that while “it’s admirable and in some cases congratulatory” that many companies are offering free or discounted software, they ought to “think of this moment as the opportunity to form meaningful relationships with school districts, and not an opportunity to build an email list.”

Instead of making promises about results, he added, they should be upfront about the time and commitment it takes to implement their programs, and offer whatever professional development support is required.

Not all company executives are offering software. Curriculum Associates CEO Rob Waldron and his wife, Jennifer, have set up a $1 million fund to support community organizations providing health, nutrition and special education services.

Enfield, the Superintendent at Highline Public Schools, offers one more thought: “Once I have helped my students, staff and community transition to what will be our new normal, I will assess what we need as a system and reach out to vendors then. For now, don’t call me, I’ll call you.”

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