As the coronavirus crisis puts a severe strain on school resources and public health, district officials have several pieces of advice on what they want from education companies — and what they don’t — in the way of messaging, outreach, and support with products.
There’s a thin line between empathy and insensitivity when businesses contact school districts that are scrambling to provide resources to students and answers to the community, K-12 leaders and others who work with school systems and vendors told EdWeek Market Brief.
Companies can be great allies for districts as they grapple with COVID-19. But they also have to recognize how the landscape for their businesses has radically changed, in a matter of weeks.
Here are six pieces of advice for education vendors on how they can be helpful to school districts during this time of upheaval.
1. Focus Heavily on Existing Relationships
Companies should put “almost all” their attention on serving their existing K-12 clients, and make sure their clients are aware of how all the products they’re already using can help them, said Matt Gambino, a consultant who works with education providers.
Vendors should make it clear to those districts that their overriding goal is to act as a resource for existing district customers, and that they stand ready to assist, said Gambino, the founder of PROPEL Skills Development.
Districts will remember the companies that step forward in meeting their needs with empathy and diligence, he said.
The Cherry Hill school district, in New Jersey, is working “round the clock” to ensure it has devices for students and staff. It has reached out to several existing vendors during the crisis to ensure it can provide all the services that students and staff need right now, said Farrah Mahan, the district’s director of curriculum and instruction.
Those needs include continuity of learning, providing devices to students and staff, and ensuring special needs students with individualized education programs continue receiving necessary services, she said.
“We have not reached out to any new vendors, as we need individuals who know our student platforms and have worked with us previously,” Mahan said.
Cherry Hill schools have been closed through at least March 30, in the wake of a second case of COVID-19 being reported in the South Jersey city. The school system started distributing Chromebooks on Monday as part of a remote learning plan, according to the district website.
The Orange County, Fla., school district, the nation’s eighth-largest, had some direct advice for vendors trying to contact the system as the coronavirus threat unfolds.
“We are in good shape and do not need any unsolicited help from vendors,” Lorena Arias, a spokesperson for the 220,000-student district, said in an email. “We have reached out to our suppliers we have under contract to address our supply requirements.”
2. Provide Free Resources — But Only Coupled With Adequate Support
Several software companies have stepped up to offer free resources to New Fairfield Public Schools, in Connecticut, which has looked favorably on those gestures, said Karen Fildes, director of technology and communications for the district.
For example, instructional content company Newsela had previously been available only in some of the system’s schools, but has since notified the district that it’s going to make its platform available to everyone in the district, Fildes said.
“That has been a huge help to us, because our teachers are very stressed about trying to get the resources that they need and being able to provide the right type of resources to kids in a distance learning environment, when there was no real prep time for it,” she said.
New Fairfield schools were in session as recently as Thursday, but are now closed through at least March 31, because of coronavirus concerns.
“I’m going to think very highly of those companies that stepped up to basically give us their products this year, because I feel like that was a real community effort on their part,” Fildes said. “Yes, of course, they’re giving it to us so that we can try it out, but the idea that they would be willing to do that is still great.”
Many district officials are skeptical of companies’ offers of free products, because they fear that it will bring costs and challenges in supporting the product, down the road.
Fildes said her support for free products offered during the coronavirus is conditional, too. Any new vendors the district decides to work with need to have staff immediately ready to provide any support the district needs to implement a product.
3. Put New Sales Pitches on Hold
As the coronavirus crisis worsened, New Fairfield schools received a round of emails from firms that included product pitches and a request for a sales call, Fildes said.
A much different, more compassionate message was communicated through a second round of emails from vendors who stated that they weren’t looking to make money, but conveyed through their message and tone that they wanted to help the district, she said.
“The first round of emails sounded very opportunistic, for lack of a better term,” Fildes said, “whereas the second [batch] genuinely felt like there were groups out there that were willing to help.”
Companies should pause transactions that they are expecting to close in the near future, and concentrate on being an informational resource for districts — without the expectation they’re going to pick up new customers, Gambino said.
“There is research out there that suggests that K-12 administrators and decision-makers have this gangrene distrust of companies,” Gambino said. “There’s this reflexive perception that we’re all out to make money.”
Continuing sales pursuits as if nothing has happened exacerbates those perceptions, he said.
Fildes noted that she’s “not even considering” purchasing anything at the moment.
Mike Lubelfeld, superintendent of North Shore School District 112 in Illinois, advised companies against “hawking” new products in this time of immediate and intense news coverage, changing information, and “exponential” challenges for school districts.
“Not only is it in poor taste, but it’s clogging up our resources and taking up our precious time to address needs that have to be attended to immediately,” he said.
4. Find Districts in Need of Support by Going Through State Professional Associations
Vendors who are looking for ways to help districts during this pandemic should contact state professional associations and see if those groups can filter through and identify K-12 systems that are in need of their services, Lubelfeld said.
Professional organizations are better positioned to handle business proposals than districts that are currently focused on protecting the general health of their students, he said.
Those associations can also reach out to the districts they serve and say, “Who needs specialized disinfectant cleaning solutions? Who needs transportation solutions? Who needs meal service?” Lubelfeld said.
It’s confusing and overwhelming for districts when vendors implement strategies broadly targeting several districts all at once, he added.
5. Make Sure Your Products — Even Free Ones –Meet States’ Student Data Privacy Requirements
Connecticut has a new student data privacy law that requires companies to sign student privacy agreements with individual districts.
The law sets a high bar for companies wishing to do new business in the state. It’s part of a wave of data privacy laws approved over the few years by legislatures across the country.
Vendors should check what is required of them, Fildes said, noting that New Fairfield public schools can’t do business with any company that doesn’t adhere to the law — even if they’re offering free services.
The Connecticut Commission on Education Technology has helped companies comply with the requirements by drafting generic terms of agreement for firms to carry to districts with which they do business, which eases the individual district approval processes, Fildes said in an email.
6. Help Districts Move to Virtual Environments — and Make Sure Your Company Is Ready to Do Business Virtually
Smadar Bergman, a computer science teacher at Adlai E. Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire, Ill., said companies can help districts by making it easier for teachers and administrators to move in a “future-oriented direction” that involves more online learning.
If districts are “agile,” and open to experimenting with different forms of learning, vendors need to be ready to help them innovate and deliver lessons in different ways, she said.
Offering more remote educational experiences would help teachers to “readily adapt” to the future of learning, Bergman said.
At the same time, if vendors are really trying to convince districts that they’re prepared to help them shift to virtual lessons, they need to be available to support school officials 24-7, Gambino said.
He thinks the coronavirus is going to change and improve how K-12 firms do business, over the long term. Vendors that can do business virtually will save on overhead costs, and they will lay the foundation to be prepared to help districts during next crisis, said Gambino.
“They’re going to say themselves, ‘You know, we actually did pretty well. We kept our head well above water during this crisis, and now I think we’ve got some of the practice and the opportunity to do more business in a virtual environment.’”
Check back on EdWeek Market Brief for more coverage of the coronavirus, and how education companies can respond to school districts’ needs.