A still-new distance learning tool based at Oklahoma State University Center for Health Sciences in Tulsa was adapted because of the COVID-19 pandemic and is now a resource for thousands of school leaders and teachers across the state.
What would normally take two months to set up in the Project ECHO education program, OSU officials worked with the Oklahoma State Department of Education and other facilitators to get going in two days.
At the forefront is Dr. Joe Johnson, associate dean and medical director for Project ECHO, and Ed Harris, an OSU professor who leads the ECHO Education team.
“When the pandemic hit in March, the infrastructure was set to go,” said Harris. “One of the first ones, we were maybe anticipating maybe 100 or so (participants), but it went beyond 500. When schools went virtual, there were so many variables — parents thrust into a role they had never been in, a lot of them didn’t have technology or the means to deal with that. We had to help school leaders best serve their constituents.”
Developed at the University of New Mexico in 2013, Project ECHO, which is short for Extension for Community Health Care Outcomes, was founded initially to give health care providers in underserved areas the ability to consult with specialists on patient cases through video teleconferencing.
It has since expanded to cover dozens of disease and treatment areas in more than 100 countries around the globe.
OSU Center for Health Sciences began its own Project ECHO program in 2017, which now includes nearly a dozen health care lines focusing on everything from substance abuse, mental health, to HIV and high-risk pregnancies.
A couple of years ago, OSU added the ECHO Education program to educate rural school administrators about the possibilities of virtual learning.
“We thought if this works in medicine, it could certainly work in education,” Johnson said. “We adopted the protocol and the infrastructure for education and focused on district leaders. If the leaders buy into it, that will trickle down to other educators.”
At the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, Gov. Kevin Stitt and State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister quickly engaged the ECHO Education program to help get information that school leaders and teachers were desperate for and to get their questions answered.
All three education teleconferencing lines — one for a general audience, one for educators of special needs students and one for education leadership — switched their focus to provide pandemic response guidance.
“All last year it was used in support of our school report card indicators. In March, all of that came to a screeching halt and everything shifted to coronavirus response,” said Robyn Miller, chief deputy superintendent at the state Education Department. “For now, we are planning to keep these education lines to remain in response to COVID through December, but I don’t know what will happen. We are really trying to meet the needs of our districts and what they’re asking us to address.”
Sessions last an hour and registration is open and free, thanks to a host of nonprofit sponsors of Project ECHO.
Last week, for example, Miller was the facilitator in a session attended remotely by about 40 educators on the TeleEDGE teleconferencing line.
Erik Friend, executive director of data and information systems at the state Education Department, presented a “decision tree” diagram to illustrate his in-depth guidance for how schools must count student attendance or absences during the pandemic.
The typically mundane task is anything but this year, with students enrolled in in-person, virtual school and blended learning modes, as well as having to shift from in-person to distance learning and even isolating and quarantining.
The other topic during that session was about what schools must do to remain in compliance with Oklahoma’s Reading Sufficiency Act, which is designed to ensure students can read on grade level by third grade.
Melissa Ahlgrim, the state’s director of reading sufficiency, explained how vendors of seven state-approved tests, which must be administered to certain students three times per year, can be given remotely if need be.
Miller said other upcoming topics on TeleEDGE include engaging families, summer learning loss, serving English learners, child nutrition and distance learning.
Project ECHO leaders say their teleconferencing channels save the state’s health care and education entities millions of dollars each year in professional development and improving outcomes.
Miller said it was a remarkably common sense solution to adapt its use for medicine to education — and an invaluable resource as part of the state’s response to the pandemic.
“No other state is doing this partnership between health and education. To transfer that into the education space and thinking about smaller, rural Oklahoma schools’ lack of access to a strong building principal or a counselor focused on social/emotional learning. That is very powerful,” she said. “When COVID arrived, the focus shifted, but I’m sure we’ll get back to the original purpose as soon as we can.”
There will be a fourth, new education teleconferencing line launching in October called TeleLEAD — specifically for education administrators — and led by the Cooperative Council for Oklahoma School Administration.
For more information or to register, visit medicine.okstate.edu/echo/index.html and click on the education links for TeleED — Educational Development, TeleSPED, TeleEDGE — Oklahoma State Department of Education, and TeleLEAD.