Essential IT: How Duval County Public Schools shifted to remote learning – in just three days

This is the third in a series profiling IT executives who helped guide their organizations through the COVID-19 pandemic and toward recovery.

In Florida, spring break was nearly over, and Jim Culbert hadn’t slept much for days.

Unfortunately for Culbert, chief information officer at Duval County Public Schools in Jacksonville, that exhausting stretch was anything but a beach party.

Over a long weekend last March, as the pandemic worsened, administrators and teachers across the nation’s 20th largest school district worked nearly around the clock to transition 125,000 students and nearly 8,000 teachers from classroom instruction to remote learning.

Culbert has led the district’s five-year, tech modernization. But that final, furious push culminated, he says, with the kind of Dickensian paradox that’s long been taught in high school lit classes: It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

“It was a nightmare and a dream,” Culbert says, “all at the same time.”

A man in a dark sport coat stands with arms folded in an office while people work at desks behind him.

Jim Culbert in the Duval County Public Schools IT department.

Hours before the first bell would ring for online classes on Monday, March 23, the IT team locked down the last infrastructure and cloud details. They had to ensure that each student and teacher could successfully access – simultaneously and for the first time – a new website called Duval HomeRoom.

They used Microsoft technology to build a single sign-on solution, assuring that every participant at home gathered for school in the same virtual place.

They’d spent years working with Microsoft engineers to develop that “single pane of glass,” Culbert says. And pre-pandemic, about one in five district teachers were using the platform, built with custom .net programming wrapped around Microsoft 365 products – including Microsoft Teams, where remote lessons would be conducted.

“The dream was getting all the teachers on board our platform,” Culbert says. “The obvious nightmare was doing it in three days.”

“On Sunday night, my wife told me that over the last three days I’d gotten maybe four hours of sleep,” he adds. “But we were just trying to get ready for the mass scale of it, making sure there were no issues.”

He wasn’t alone.

During that same long weekend, many teachers across the district also worked into the wee hours to prepare.

“It was a little stressful,” recalls Nadine Ebri, who teaches Algebra 1 and serves as the math department chair at Southside Middle School in Jacksonville. “When I say ‘a little,’ I’m using that very lightly.

“We had to shift our entire school to online. Teachers had to figure out how to get their students added to their (virtual) classes, plan their lessons, and then upload those lessons – all within three days,” she adds.

Those tasks were a bit more familiar to Ebri. She is a Microsoft Innovative Educator (MIE). That program, which began in 2014, recognizes teachers around the world who use technology to achieve better student outcomes. More than 1 million educators have completed the program’s online courses.

A woman wearing a football jersey stands in a school classroom with her left hand on her left hip.

Nadine Ebri in her classroom at Southside Middle School in Jacksonville. (Courtesy of Nadine Ebri)

Ebri relies on Teams to deliver her lessons, assignments, and tests, and to collaborate with her students. The 11- and 12-year-olds in her classes were similarly at ease with accessing their materials online, she says.

“However, it was harder for teachers who mainly taught by using pencil and paper” Ebri says. “I was able to help some of those teachers who were at different comfort levels with technology.”

In fact, the district used Teams to launch a remote service desk (staffed with 75 specially trained employees) to guide teachers seeking extra help in setting up and then running their virtual classrooms. The service desk also assisted parents and students in getting online.

But on the Sunday night before classes went remote, Ebri personally chatted with other teachers until 2 a.m. She  went to sleep only after her husband urged her to get some rest before the school day dawned.

“Obviously, I was tired, too,” she says. “But I was willing to sacrifice a little bit of sleep just so teachers were able to feel comfortable.”

It all paid off. Within the first hour of school, more than 100,000 students successfully logged into Duval HomeRoom, Culbert says.

“We had spent the prior few days ramping up servers in (Microsoft) Azure to make sure we could handle the load,” he says.

“We didn’t drop anybody. That was a huge boost. Everyone in town felt that, ‘Wow y’all did it.’ We just flowed right into it.”

As online learning began to feel more routine across the district, teachers added more tech to their remote classrooms, including Teams features like Breakout Rooms and custom backgrounds. And they incorporated products like Microsoft Whiteboard, a digital canvas app that’s free for students and teachers.

But that massive, rapid move to digital instruction also collided with a sobering reality: Thousands of students in Jacksonville lacked internet access and laptops to use at home.

School officials began distributing about 65,000 new Lenovo laptops to public middle school and high school students, free of charge, through the district’s “One to One” initiative, a push to bring all secondary students to a 1:1 ratio with a computer for at-home learning.

The district also has supplied about 8,000 Wi-Fi hotspots to students, and plans to distribute an additional 2,000, Culbert says.

“They have done everything they could,” Ebri says. “I’m teaching my classes in person, but I have distance-learning classes, too. That means I have some students who have not set foot in a school building in almost a year.”

About 75% of Duval County Public Schools students have returned to traditional classrooms and the rest still attend virtually, Culbert says.

“We’re going to all-digital textbooks over the next few years,” he says. “If you don’t have internet access at home, you’re going to lose that rich experience that you could have from reading a textbook on a PC. Closing the digital divide has become even more of a necessity.

“There needs to be more of a national movement behind this. We must make sure every household in the United States has reliable internet access because, otherwise, people are just being left out.”

As Culbert looks ahead and sees vital work yet to be done, he also glances back at the last year and smiles at the progress made.

Many of the district’s most tenured teachers who have returned to their brick-and-mortar classrooms are holding tight to the tech they adopted in 2020, Culbert says.

“They are still utilizing Teams, still posting assignments there, still posting videos there,” he says. “COVID has changed us in many ways. But in many more ways, we are not going back.”

Portraits by Remi Salva.