CA BOCES Technology: The Essential Link for Rural School Districts

Olean, NY – April 30, 2020 –

Back in late February, before regional school closings and executive orders had been issued and before social distancing was a household phrase, Cattaraugus-Allegany BOCES District Superintendent, Scott Payne, started running scenarios and planning – a difficult task when you are not totally sure of the scale of what you will be planning for. As he watched more and more reports of the impact of COVID-19 throughout New York State and throughout the country, he could sense that something unique and powerful was heading our way. As he, and all school directors and administrators soon learned, it was not only heading our way, but would soon change the face of education, technology, and services provided by the CA BOCES organization and the education sector as a whole.

Like most technology leaders, CA BOCES Director of Information Technology, Michael Graf, knows first-hand that to be successful, you usually need to be a few steps ahead. Along with his team of techs and programmers, Graf immediately had connectivity on his mind. “No matter the scenario, I knew that our own Career and Technical Education (CTE)/Adult Education students and our staff and our component districts would need to be connected online for a good chunk of an extended closure. In all, our service area for our own campuses and 22 school districts encompasses nearly 2,160 square miles, so I knew that would be a challenge all on its own.” Despite the challenge, soon, community Wi-Fi connections were available at CA BOCES campuses in Belmont, Ellicottville, and Olean; districts received guidance and assistance on strengthening their own networks, devices were delivered to staff, students, and component districts, and flash drives were delivered to component districts throughout the region for future student use. “It was a massive undertaking, but our team is very light on its feet, so we were able to accomplish our tasks relatively quickly so students and staff could receive the support they needed.”

In addition to connecting students, CA BOCES staff members were also surveyed for needs, as even larger closures loomed ahead. Graf said, “Making sure students and staff are connected is only one piece of the puzzle. We have many essential staff functions and operations that need to be seamless – both for the CA BOCES organization as a whole and for component districts. So, my team made sure that happened. Again, we are in a predominantly rural area with lots of miles to cover – so maintaining connection and services is of top importance.”

District Superintendent, Payne, maintained constant communication with Superintendents and Administrators from component districts in the days and weeks leading up to and following state-wide closures, to keep a pulse on needs that existed within our wide-spread districts, both in technology and other essential elements of operation. “Leaders at our CA BOCES campuses and in our component districts have been very thoughtful and strategic. They had Emergency Preparedness plans and communication networks already in place – but we focused on providing guidance and support at every turn so all our districts could be as strong as possible. Technology was a big piece of that puzzle.”

While his team was very quickly equipped with the proper tools and connections, Assistant Superintendent for Career and Technical Education Programs (CTE), Jim Schifley, knew a challenge would exist in monitoring and assessing highly technical and “hands-on” projects for CTE students scattered throughout the region. “My team did some brainstorming and while they wanted to focus on gathering information, they also wanted to focus on connection,” he said. “They came up with some really solid ideas that our Tech Team was able to bring to life.” In partnership with the Technology Department Programming staff, a private upload website was created that would allow students to very simply upload all work videos and photos to one central location with CTE staff on the other end. Upon approval, these videos and photos will be shared to CA BOCES social media networks, encouraging further student interaction and connection. Schifley said, “We want to increase that engagement, and adding social media to the mix helps students engage in a way that is meaningful and, quite honestly, most accessible to them.”

Assistant Superintendent for Exceptional Education Programs, Carol Fial, knew for certain that technology would be a key link for connecting her team of hundreds of teachers and specialists to districts and students with varying needs. “We knew that maintaining continuity of instruction, counseling, and specialty services was going to be a challenge, but it was one we knew we had to take on. Our team provides essential services to districts and to our students and making sure they are taken care of is our top priority.” With impending closures, she and her team worked closely with Technology Services to make sure her team was equipped with the devices and connectivity they would need to service rural districts. “We have a wide-spread coverage area and many students to reach,” she said.

In addition to technology in-hand, the CA BOCES Print Shop and the Technology Services team, created an upload app that allowed the entire Exceptional Education staff to load key documents they would need to have in print form to best serve students. From there, the Print Shop team scheduled and executed large-scale print runs and packaging of student resources. Additionally, using another round of software, they routed out the best delivery plan. Michael Graf said that it was a large undertaking, but essential. “This project was massive, but essential for continuation of service and the overall success of students,” he said. “We also had to accomplish this as efficiently as possible and with as few team members as possible to maintain safety; I am highly impressed with our CA BOCES response.”

Another department keenly aware of the role of solid technology integration during the COVID-19 pandemic is Instructional Support Services (ISS) at CA BOCES. Assistant Superintendent for ISS, Tim Cox, and his team, have been a vital training link for CA BOCES instructional staff and for component districts. Immediately upon announcements of closures, his team assembled, ready to provide support. Training on new technology and instructional methods were developed. “We quickly realized that we were not only providing tools – but we also needed to provide support in the skills needed to carry out education in a new environment. We typically have instructional designers spread throughout our communities, but we had to be ready with a new model – and the results have been tremendous.”  In the past weeks, more than 8,000 educators have participated in an ISS training experience. Cox said: “Our training experiences have really helped to close gaps – both in technology expertise and in geographic distance. While we still look for multiple ways to connect, technology has been the thread that has helped hold us all together, whether we are talking about instruction in our CTE programs or in our component districts.”