Our Essential Workers: Washougal School District’s technical support specialist ‘hit the ground running’

Linda Henderson helps support teachers, staff as they navigate new world of distance-learning during COVID-19 school shutdowns

Editor’s Note: This article is part an occasional Post-Record series, “Our Essential Workers,” highlighting East Clark County residents who are working on the front lines — in health care, as first responders, at the grocery stores, for essential city services, in transportation, in our school districts, etc. — to help make all of our lives safer and more secure during the COVID-19 pandemic. If you have a suggestion for a person we should feature in this series, please email Managing Editor Kelly Moyer at kelly.moyer@camaspostrecord.com and type “Essential Workers” in the subject line. 

Linda Henderson has always seen herself as a natural problem-solver; that’s why she enjoys her job as the Washougal School District’s technical support specialist.

Her latest quandary, however, was much different from any other that she’s faced. She, along with her colleagues in the district’s information technology (IT) department, were recently tasked with constructing an entirely new education delivery method in the matter of mere weeks after Washington Governor Jay Inslee ordered all schools in the state to shut down due to the widespread outbreak of COVID-19 on March 13.

That’s not an easy problem to solve, to be sure. But Hendreson wasn’t daunted.

“We looked at it as a new challenge. We said, ‘Let’s go do this,’” she said. “We hit the ground running. We were one of the few groups of people who were at work on Monday, March 15. We had a meeting, and we talked about the next steps, what we were going to do and the best ways to do it. We’ve been going strong the whole time.”

Henderson has worked for the school district since 2012, providing support for teacher devices and classroom presentation equipment at Cape Horn-Skye and Hathaway elementary schools and Canyon Creek Middle School while leading the district’s iPad management and support efforts. 

Prior to joining the district, Henderson served as an office manager for a manufacturing company and worked as a bookkeeper. She has a degree in computer information systems.

Now she’s an integral part of the district’s recently launched distance-learning program.

“Linda has been instrumental in our efforts to organize and support our workforce as they shift to doing work online rather than in-person (work) at all of our sites,” said Les Brown, Washougal School District’s communications and IT director. “She has also tremendously supported the effort to get devices into the hands of students and families to support our mission of knowing, nurturing and challenging all students to rise via digital tools and virtual learning activities.”

After the schools closed, Henderson and the rest of the district’s IT workers distributed laptops or smart devices to roughly 200 district employees in need of a device and about 1,350 iPads to elementary-school students. Middle-schoolers and Washougal High School students already had Chromebooks when they left school in mid-March.

“We are fortunate to have such a dedicated IT staff, led by Les Brown, who have been working around the clock to make sure all of our students have a device in their hands as we move into the ‘new way of doing school,’ Washougal schools superintendent Mary Templeton stated in a blog posted to the district’s website on April 10.

Then they went to work on building a virtual learning platform, helping teachers and students become acclimated to new learning applications and programs.

“Our teachers are holding Zoom classroom meetings, creating podcast for students, providing feedback on student work, using Google Classroom, providing direct communication with parents on how best to support learning while at home, providing paper/pencil packets for students, creating exciting and innovative lessons, developing service projects for students (like a letter writing campaign between elementary students and nursing home residents), learning how to use online learning platforms, and digging into professional development that will improve instruction,” Templeton stated. “This is a stunning accomplishment, as we have only been out of school for a short period of time.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, Henderson and her colleagues have also been receiving and responding to a large amount of “help” requests. 

“The sheer volume of work has been daunting at times,” Henderson said. “We’ve received a lot of help tickets, and our biggest challenge is responding to them in a reasonable amount of time. We have done great work in identifying consistent questions that are coming through and posting (answers) on our website, and we’ve seen a slowdown in tickets as a result. We’re also learning how to support staff members’ devices from a distance; we’re used to helping them in person.”

Henderson said “things have gone very well considering what we’ve gone through.”

“Once the teachers work through all of the logistics, and a lot of their questions are answered, things will go much smoother,” she said. “Fortunately, we have some teachers with strong technological skills who are sharing things with the rest of the staff members to help keep things moving forward. Some teachers haven’t used technology to its fullest capability, and now they’ll be expected to do that. Some of the things (that they are learning to do now) are things that they should have been doing before, so when we come back, we’ll be better.”

The district has been greatly aided by its “1-to-1 Initiative,” funded by a voter-approved technology levy, which guarantees every student in the district access to a smart device.

“We were so fortunate that we already had a system in place,” Henderson said. “I feel that we were already pretty strong in terms of knowing how to use (the devices). Now, it’s a matter of doing the same thing at a distance. We just need to keep working toward using them the best way we can so they are an effective learning tool at every grade level.”

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