As Coronavirus Disrupts Schools, K-12 Vendors Face Balancing Act

Staff Writer

Schools and communities are stepping into the unknown, in reacting to the fast-evolving coronavirus pandemic. So are the education companies that serve them.

The reality is that it could be months before providers of various products, tools, platforms, and services know the full impact that the worldwide health crisis will have on their revenue, according to company officials and advisers to businesses across the education space.

Yet education companies also need to make difficult decisions, quickly.

Many of their existing district clients — and the prospects they’ve been hoping to reach, are consumed with crisis response – and may have no interest in hearing what comes across as a sales pitch.

At the same time, many providers believe they have products – especially online platforms – that can help teachers and schools trying to provide lessons virtually.

As it now stands, schools aren’t focused on buying things – they’re much more worried about the health of students and other community members, said Adam Newman, a founding partner of consulting firm Tyton Partners.

January through spring is typically a time period when many education businesses introduce new products and meet with potential new customers, laying the groundwork for peak selling season that takes place around the start of a new fiscal year, Newman said.

But as long as the serious health threat continues, companies would be better off paying attention to existing district relationships than trying to start new ones, he advised.

“If you’re an installed presence, if you’re an incumbent… you are probably safer than if you are someone who is staking their efforts on a big, new sales season for fall of 2020,” Newman said.

And to be sure, companies should be empathetic regarding the seriousness of the current public health crisis as they consider how they approach their messaging to schools during the outbreak, he said.

The extent to which the coronavirus will disrupt district purchasing activity over the next few months remains to be seen, but some kind of disruption will “absolutely” be felt, predicted Jill Abbott, managing director of the Software and Information Industry Association’s education division.

The remainder of school districts’ current fiscal year, between now and June, is spent procuring products and services for the next school year. If districts have to go virtual, procurements will be impacted, but it’s difficult to know exactly how, Abbott said.

If you’re an installed presence, if you’re an incumbent… you are probably safer than if you are someone who is staking their efforts on a big, new sales season for fall of 2020.Adam Newman, Tyton Partners

If school districts close, one of the big questions is whether administrative functions will remain open, said Jay Diskey, the principal of Diskey Public Affairs, a policy and communications firm that works with K-12 and higher education companies, asociations and other organizations.

“Would central offices remain open so that functions such as planning, procurement, and administration could continue?” Diskey said in an e-mail. “If the answer to that question is yes, I don’t see an adverse impact to education businesses.”

Even if districts are starting to place orders for next school year, Diskey noted that purchases are planned well in advance and usually follow adoption cycles set by districts or states. School systems have already purchased education products and digital content licenses for the current academic year.

Diskey knows those buying cycles well. He’s the former executive director of the Association of American Publishers’ pre-K-12 learning group.

“Students will still need materials no matter where the learning occurs—in the classroom or remotely at home,” he said.

“Not Rushing Out to Purchase”

As the nation’s 10th largest district, the Fairfax County Public Schools, copes with the coronavirus outbreak, it’s “not rushing out to purchase new devices” in the short term, said Allison Calderon, the district’s coordinator for information technology project management services. That’s because those items wouldn’t get to the district quickly enough.

Further, the district hasn’t postponed any technology purchases at this point, and is scheduled to approve next year’s budget on May 23, she said.

“Either things were already in the works, and those things are moving forward, or some conversations probably are being delayed,” Calderon said. “But for the most part, we’re in good shape.”

As more districts evaluate their capacity for remote learning, one example of a company that is adjusting within the margins of its current district relationships is Instructure.

The firm, which sells the Canvas learning management system, is considering free or at-cost pilots for districts to expand their technological capabilities in case coronavirus halts in-person classes.

“We’re really trying to bring the resources forward, and then work individually with each district or existing customer to find the best solution that meets their needs,” Instructure Chief Customer Experience Officer Melissa Loble said in an interview with EdWeek Market Brief.

With the possibility for an increased remote work environment, school districts might now want more third-party tools integrated in the Canvas LMS that they hadn’t sought before, Loble said.

“We might prioritize building that integration above another feature because we know it will, given the new situation, impact more of our teachers and districts,” she said.

For example, Canvas uses Blindside Networks’ Big Blue Button, which provides Instructure’s Canvas conferencing service, said Instructure spokesperson Cory Edwards. Instructure partners like Blindside have shown a willingness to help districts with virtual implementations amid the pandemic.

Educational gaming provider Kahoot! has also launched a major effort to make its products available to schools.

Since announcing that it would offer its premium products for free for the rest of this school year, the company is getting hundreds of inquiries daily, said Falguni Bhuta, Kahoot head of partnerships and communications.

“It’s been overwhelming,” she said. “We’re real happy that we’re able to help them and we are working around the clock to do that.”

The company’s premium offerings give teachers access to formative assessment tools with reporting on student progress, allow them to assemble banks of educational games, and collaborate with other educators.

Kahoot! is touching base with districts in some U.S. regions worst affected by coronavirus, including in the Seattle area, Northern California, and in the northeast, she said. And its making sure educators around the world are aware of its free offerings, said Kahoot! Vice President of Content Partnerships Craig Narveson.

He said the effort Kahoot! is making to deliver a free product to schools should “assuage any concern that this is anything but us wanting to make sure that our educators have something that will help them.”

Added Bhuta: “We are changing our messaging to make sure that schools and teachers understand that we are very useful for remote training and remote learning, in addition to in the classroom,” Bhuta said. “We want to make sure that they understand that.”

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