In the spring, schools were forced to shut down to stem the spread of COVID-19, and this fall schools are struggling to figure out how to either reopen safely or shift to distance learning to meet student needs.

Two Federal agencies tasked with supporting educators and students – the Department of Education and the Department of Defense Education Activity – are similarly having to adjust how their offices function and deliver on their mission to support education in the U.S. and military bases abroad.

During an Aug. 27 ATARC webinar, Jason Gray, CIO of the Department of Education, and Mark Patterson, CIO for the Department of Defense Education Activity, stressed the importance of communication when it comes to modernization and resiliency.

For both agencies, the push for modernization started well before the COVID-19 pandemic upended the way agencies meet their mission. Gray and Patterson said they were able to capitalize on previous agency modernization efforts, while still making rapid changes to adapt to their new environments.

Patterson, whose agency is responsible for planning, directing, coordinating, and managing pre-kindergarten through 12th grade educational programs on behalf of the United States Department of Defense, said that when he joined the agency he looked to partnerships to learn how to run IT in an education environment.

Once they gained some understanding into how to modernize IT in the education sphere, Patterson’s team began their work. Starting with the previous school year, they were hard at work on modernizing the agency. But, halfway through the 2019-2020 school year, schools across the globe were beginning to shut down in the face of the coronavirus pandemic.

One challenge facing the agency was having to move from on-prem to a fully remote environment. He said this took not only using tools already in place but using “a big push of innovation.” With students and teachers having to rapidly adapt to learning and teaching in a whole new way, Patterson said communication was key. “We weren’t necessarily prepared for where we were going,” but his team got prepared for action quickly, he said.

Using their foundation of modernization, plus a dose of innovation, Patterson said they were able to transition from “brick and mortar learning” to using the Google Classroom and G Suite environment in four days. “Was it perfect? No. You’re always going to have issues,” he acknowledged. “But we found workarounds” and made it work.

For Gray, his tenure at the Education Department began with a push to improve productivity and realize significant cost savings. When asked how he worked to get leadership buy-in for modernization, he discussed an early project that produced success. When he joined the department, it took employees 20 minutes to boot up their devices and start working. Through modernization, his team was able to get bootup time down to less than 42 seconds. “That returned more than 1,500 hours a day in productivity” and saved taxpayers millions of dollars, he said.

When it came to convincing leadership on the importance of modernization, Gray stressed communication. “It was really about communicating what we were doing, why we were doing it, and what its impact was,” he said. When talking to leadership, he said he started by saying “you won’t have to listen to people complain” about IT anymore, and then followed up with the cost savings the department would see.

While the modernization push began before the COVID-19 pandemic, both agencies had to rapidly accelerate to keep their employees working at full capacity and keep meeting students’ and teachers’ educational needs. However, when modernizing for COVID, both Gray and Patterson stressed the importance of not just modernizing for the present, but also looking to the future.

Once the new services, solutions, or applications are implemented, communication and training must follow.

“It doesn’t matter if you have a great set of services if people don’t know how to use them,” Gray said.

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Kate Polit
Kate Polit
Kate Polit is MeriTalk's Assistant Copy & Production Editor covering the intersection of government and technology.