EDTECH: Would you say that Prince George’s County was very focused on educational technology before the pandemic?
ZUCKERMAN: We were early adopters of Google apps in our district. We also have a very robust technology infrastructure and a very robust technology training team. I think that we were well positioned from an infrastructure standpoint in terms of the network. However, we were not a one-to-one district.
EDTECH: Prince George’s County is one of the largest school districts in the nation. How did you go about getting devices for so many students?
ZUCKERMAN: It was an emergency model to start, as it was for everybody. Early in the pandemic, we were looking everywhere to find devices for students who didn’t have them. We were moving devices constantly. We worked with parents to utilize their personal devices. Around Thanksgiving of 2020, we started to receive a huge number of devices that we had previously ordered, and we were able to rapidly push them out to our school teams.
We are now a true one-to-one district, where every student gets a device. We view student devices as an extension of the schoolhouse. Students take them home, and we send devices home with students over the summer.
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We have funding through the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund. We strategically placed orders that maximize the life expectancy of the devices.
EDTECH: What is your vision of how digital equity will play out over the long term at PGCPS?
ZUCKERMAN: It’s very simple and straightforward: We never want to have a student who doesn’t have access to a high-quality computer and access to the internet.
Our CEO, Dr. Monica Goldson, is firmly committed to digital equity. Student devices have become such an integral part of education. Everything we do is organized in a way to ensure that we have student devices in place.
EDTECH: What does instructional technology in the district look like today?
ZUCKERMAN: In addition to all these student devices, we’ve added SMART interactive displays in our classrooms. We’re implementing the Canvas learning management system at scale. We want to invest strongly in key solutions and then peel back the ones that aren’t quite as necessary.
EDTECH: How has all of this technology impacted professional development for teachers?
ZUCKERMAN: Our focus is not so much on going from school to school anymore. Now we’re trying to reach 10,000 teachers at scale.
In each school, we’ve placed teacher leaders who receive a stipend to serve as the technology leaders in the building. Our training team is investing time in those staff members so they become the force multiplier in our schools.
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EDTECH: How does online training augment the work of your tech leaders?
ZUCKERMAN: So, the whole world has shifted, and our staff has shifted with it. There’s a force multiplier in using technology for training staff. For example, cybersecurity has become a major focus of ours, and with online training, we were able to add two trainings to our arsenal and push them out to teachers.
And now, very quickly at scale, our staff is able to access online training, and that’s huge for us. We’ve done that for special education, and we’ve done that for mental health. We’ve done that for student safety.
EDTECH: How do you think your commitment to hybrid learning will impact the district going forward?
ZUCKERMAN: We started off the 2021-2022 school year with about 10,000 students in grades K—6 still learning virtually. We did that all the way up through the second semester. Today, we have 500 students learning in our online campus. If we have to do remote learning again across the district, we now have the knowledge base, collective skill and collective will to implement it at scale.
We are also seeing some examples of true hybrid teaching that excite me about the future. We may have a teacher instructing a group of students in one school at the same time as students in another school who are under the supervision of a paraprofessional or a substitute teacher.
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We’ve also invested in enhanced classroom audio and video as we continue to expand the ways in which technology can help us address the national teacher staffing shortage. This is about equipping some classrooms for the future to do more hybrid instruction with those teachers and schools that choose this model.
EDTECH: You relied on ESSER funding to roll out one-to-one during lockdown. Are you concerned about long-term sustainability?
ZUCKERMAN: The funding cliff is very real. Let me be clear about that. Where I think we’re going to feel it most is in the devices themselves. So, maintaining that scale of having a device for all 136,500 students when the federal funding eventually dries up will be challenging.
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We are working closely with our CFO this year on a financial sustainability plan, and the reality is we may have to make some adjustments to the overall one-to-one program. But our goal right now, and our commitment, is to keep that program in place the way we have it.
EDTECH: What are some unique ways that you’re using technology across the district?
ZUCKERMAN: I think that technology is supporting some of the most exciting work that we’re doing right now. For example, just a few weeks ago, we launched an innovative telehealth program. Our technology team was at the table from the start to make sure that the technology infrastructure, the applications and everything else worked to support telehealth.
We also see teachers leveraging technology for differentiated instruction in ways that I don’t think they could have imagined doing before the pandemic.