How GIS guided one district’s crisis response

Using student data and mapping software helped Muskogee Public Schools manage multiple crises, including its COVID-19 response.
Eric Wells is the chief information officer for Muskogee Public Schools in Oklahoma.
Eric Wells is the chief information officer for Muskogee Public Schools in Oklahoma.

Muskogee Public Schools in Oklahoma has been dealing with many unexpected challenges this year, from a sewer break to providing food for the community and facing school closures due to COVID-19. As chief information officer, I’ve been fortunate to be able to put our geographic information system (GIS) to work for us, visually mapping the data from our student information system (SIS).

Being able to aggregate multiple pieces of data to make an informed decision became especially key to us earlier this year. On Jan. 29, a sewer broke in one of our elementary schools. You can only get to the sewer through one crawl space, so when some of the plumbing failed, we didn’t know it for a while. Within a matter of a few days, we had a big issue on our hands. We thought, “Oh, wow, how are we going to move 300 students at the drop of a hat tomorrow?”

We had to think quickly, so we fired up our GIS tool, ONPASS Pro. We were able to export about 30 different student data tags from our SIS. We then used the aggregated data to make informed decisions about where the students needed to go based on their educational needs, logistics, and other factors. For example, if a student was part of our English Language Learner Immersive Program, we knew that that student should go to a certain elementary school because they had a sibling that went there.

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We could see students on the map through a 360-degree view and discern how a certain student would best fit at a particular elementary school. Within about a day, we were able to place our students according to their needs in buildings where we had capacity, and get information to their families fast.

We were able to make informed decisions backed by efficient and reliable data, which was good preparation for what was coming in March.

A data-driven response to COVID-19

We’re not a large district. We have some urban and rural schools. Our socioeconomic status is low, and our basic needs are high. Every student eats free twice a day regardless of income level. When the pandemic hit, we knew that even though schools had to shut down, we had to keep providing meals for our students. We started planning by creating a few different sets of data. We exported our addresses straight from our SIS into ONPASS Pro, and made maps that way. We also used surveys and were able to text parents important information. When they responded, we took that data and poured it into the GIS tool. We received more data from the city, because we could feed anyone ages zero to 18, whether they were a student of ours or not. Based on all of this information, we made a detailed map of the best areas to feed students.

To help get the word out to families, one of the tools we used was Locate My School, which we usually use to give students and parents directions to their school or bus stop locations. Now we have food sites publicly posted. Anyone in Muskogee can enter their home address, find the closest feeding sites, and get the meals they need. We can blast a food location site out and get the entire city involved. We can feed a wide age range of people, and as part of our “Seamless Summer” plan, we’re offering “grab and go” meals even after the school year ends.

Keeping students connected

When it came to adapting to distance learning, we were lucky because we won a grant a few years ago to give every student a WiFi hotspot. Even though we’re an underserved district, through bonds, funds, and this grant, every student also has a laptop they can take home with them.

In-person or remote learning? Let each family decide

We’ve been doing distance learning for a few months now. Even though the academic year is now over, our students are still logging in every day. They can connect to their teachers, talk with their peers, and use the learning management systems we have in place.

Our district covers almost 120 square miles, and students are using cell phone-based technologies, so we were originally taxing the cell towers around us. Using ONPASS Pro, we provided counts about where students are in certain areas, tied that back to their cell phones, and shared that map with T-Mobile. The company helped us out by upgrading the cell phone towers during the pandemic, based on where our students were at the time. The cell towers have made an incredible difference.

Learning doesn’t end

Whatever building our students may come back to in the 2020-2021 school year, we know that we have systems in place that will allow them to learn no matter what happens in the future. We’re so happy that our students have internet and computer access, and that we can feed them twice a day. Muskogee Public Schools can still provide the core services our students need, all thanks to our ability to analyze a wide range of  data we receive from our dedicated community.

Eric Wells is the chief information officer for Muskogee Public Schools in Oklahoma. He can be reached at [email protected].

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