Advice: Navigating a New Normal in K-12

June 11, 2020 by Kendall Ingram

Advice: Navigating a New Normal in K-12

Schools have been faced with a variety of unique challenges during the COVID-19 crisis. From distance learning to remote work, the K-12 community has responded with ingenuity, perseverance, and an unwavering commitment to both staff and students.

During this period of constant change, it is vitally important that district professionals have access to resources supporting their work and facilitating best practices. Tyler Technologies was proud to host a recent live online panel to enable the sharing of ideas and insight. Our panelists discussed how district operations have shifted, best practices they’ve discovered, and difficulties they’re still facing as they pivot toward a “new normal” ahead of the 2020-2021 school year. The panel includes:

  • Jason Johnson, Chief Finance Officer, Pryor Public Schools, OK
  • Joe Spagna, Director of Financial Operations, West Warwick Public Schools, RI
  • Tracy Rockwell, Itinerant Business Manager, Maricopa County School Superintendent’s Office, AZ

Tyler’s Senior Vice President and General Manager of Schools Sean Marlow facilitated the discussion that highlighted the many similarities and differences in how districts of different sizes and with different demographics are navigating these unprecedented times. Here are some of the highlights.

A Sudden Shift

When the Worldwide Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a pandemic on March 11, districts needed to shift to online education and a work-from-home model with little warning. “We received notice that the state was deciding whether to close schools, how long they were going to close schools, or what that looked like,” Johnson said. “We left for spring break not really knowing what was going to happen.”

Thankfully, much of the technology and workflow the districts had in place for employee self-service, payroll, and purchase orders enabled finance and HR staff to quickly adapt.

“On the financial and business operations side, we can do 99% of our work electronically,” said Spagna. “I always worked toward getting backup computers and laptops for my staff if we had to do payroll from home due to a snowstorm or anything. We basically picked everything up, went to our house, plugged it in, and it was business as usual.”

This is something Spagna said wouldn’t have been possible just four years ago.

“We had an AS400, which was a DOS system. It never would have happened that way,” he explained. “The governor would have shut us down, and we would have had to approve staff to go into the office building to run payroll every week.”

The transition has not been without its trials, however. In Arizona, Rockwell said one of the biggest challenges she has faced is employee leave time. While all employees have continued to be paid, the introduction of federal COVID-19 leave has led to many discussions about what to do if an employee is sick, is caring for someone who is sick, or, in some cases, is not coming in to work. And, internet connectivity in rural areas has posed significant hurdles for business staff and students — an issue Johnson has faced as well.

Stories of Hope and Success

Throughout this time of transition, our panelists have seen bright spots as employees have increasingly embraced technology and come together to serve their students. In Oklahoma, Pryor Public Schools quickly recognized a need to support their community through something we can often take for granted — food.

“Everything was shut down. Other than grocery stores, which were constantly out of stock of most staples, there wasn’t a place for people to go and get food,” Johnson said. “We’ve really been able to support families through a time where — whether they could afford it or not — they just couldn’t get food. It’s been a good thing for us to be able to do.”

Another high point: An increased enrollment in direct deposit for staff, which has resulted in reduced paper-based manual work for business offices.

Looking Ahead

Like much of the world, school districts are coming out on the other side of this pandemic with a few lessons learned and plans to take with them in the years to come. For Rockwell, this includes assessing the need for an operational recovery plan.

“Through an audit, you look at what IT has for a disaster recovery. Now, let’s expand that,” she said. “This is in the realm of a disaster, but we’ll see an evolution to a plan that’s not just bringing data back from the network, but what to do if something creates a crisis like this again.”

Johnson plans to prepare for exactly that scenario. Once school is back in session, even if things are going well, he hopes to hold regular virtual learning days to ensure everyone from support staff to teachers and students are property equipped for the future, no matter what it may hold.

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