Dispatches from the Front: EdTech Leaders Face COVID-19

Originally published to Oaklins DeSilva+Phillips – November 18, 2020

Nate Davis, CEO and Chairman of the Board of Directors at K12 Inc., is a seasoned corporate transformational leader across industries with a record of improving operations, launching innovative new products, and building beneficial relationships with legislative and regulatory authorities.

Mr. Davis previously served as CEO and President of XM Satellite Radio and led the company through its merger with Sirius Satellite Radio.

With a personal passion for serving children and helping them achieve higher levels of success, Mr. Davis championed the newly founded Art Harper Saturday Academy at the Stevens Institute of Technology to help local high school students pursue college majors and careers in STEM-related fields.

Mr. Davis earned an MBA from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, an MS in engineering computer science from the Moore School at the University of Pennsylvania, and a BS in engineering from the Stevens Institute of Technology.

1. Now that the school year is underway, what has surprised you the most about what your customers/students are doing and what’s happening in your market in general?

Well, let me begin by pointing out what hasn’t surprised us about the online education market in general. In the years prior to the pandemic, we saw the demand for online learning options grow every semester. Athletes, advanced learners, students with disabilities, those seeking a bullying-free environment, and students of every background imaginable came to K12-powered schools to balance a full academic course load along with extracurricular pursuits or medical needs. And this is still the case today.

However, during the pandemic, I’ve been most surprised by how many misconceptions exist about online school. For example, some believe that kids are just sitting in front of a computer all day, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. K12 offers state-credentialed, specially trained online teaching staff; an award-winning digital-first curriculum; special education, tutoring, and wraparound support; and career learning programs, just to name a few resources. All of this means online learning can and does offer a unique, focused, and personalized academic experience for any student, regardless of age, background, or ability.

Eighty-five percent of parents we surveyed agree with this sentiment and say they are satisfied with K12-powered schools and curriculum. In another study, 86% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that children in virtual schools “learned a lot,” while only 13% of respondents of brick-and-mortar students felt the same. 

It’s also worth noting that earlier this week, we announced that more than 195,000 students enrolled in K12-powered schools for the 2020-2021 school year. This number represents a 57% increase from our enrollments in September 2019. At the same time, K12 supports the online and blended learning needs of over 2,000 school districts around the country – programs that have run successfully for many years. 

Again, all of this data underscores the increased demand and need for online learning solutions.

2. What does the new normal for K12.com look like and do you see this continuing or do you think education will go back to what was ‘normal’ prior?

I think online education is and will continue to be part of the new normal. That’s due, in large part, to the pandemic which has driven more parents and families to explore online learning options.

A recent poll conducted by Morning Consult showed that 71% of parents felt that online education should be an ongoing option for students; and 85% agree that school districts should have an online backup plan even after students return to school. These sentiments have compelled more school districts to develop innovative solutions as they work to meet demands for an alternative to in-person classes.

At K12, we’ve always believed that online learning is a key part of the way education would be provided. And these survey results highlight, what I believe, is just the beginning of this trend.

I would also like to add that online is only one component of great learning, and face-to-face time can be just as important. The best environment is when you can blend the advantages of online with brick-and-mortar into a seamless blended solution. I think the new normal will incorporate this solution. 

3. How long do you expect your employees to work remotely (or were most of them always working remotely)?  What are your plans for using your office space going forward?

Before the COVID-19 crisis, about 70 percent of K12 employees already worked from home. However, since the pandemic began and for the first time in our company’s history, every K12 employee is now working remotely—that includes teams from our corporate headquarters in Herndon, Virginia and staff from our enrollment center in Knoxville, Tennessee.

Nevertheless, everyone is working harder than ever and the numbers show it: we’ve seen more than double the number of inquiries about K12-powered offerings than in previous years. Also, because of our employees’ efforts, more than 200,000 students, families, and teachers have used our free COVID outreach resources this year.

As always, my top priority is to keep everyone safe, healthy, and informed. That’s why K12 office spaces remain closed. Office access is limited to identified, essential workers who must complete essential business functions.

We have not determined an exact date we will return to the office.  However, again, we want our employees to be safe, we want our customers to be safe, and we want our families to be safe.  Until we know that our country has started to reduce, instead of see an increase in the number of COVID-19 cases, we will continue working remotely. I can’t imagine we will be back before March or April.

4. How has your leadership style changed – or not – during this period? What might you be doing differently now with your team?

As you can imagine, a number of things have changed:

  • I find that my email volume has gone up and my one-on-one conversations have gone down. I am “zoomed out.”  So, I have had to put in more effort to work more hours reading email and responding to what would normally be a hallway conversation, an office visit, or a quick phone call.  To replace that, I’ve had to have more one-on-one conversations and now block “open discussion” time with my direct reports.
  • I also need to have more “scheduled” time with employees who are not direct reports, just to catch up.
  • All executives in the company are trying to do quick videos as a means of communicating to our employees.
  • While electronic and processing productivity has gone up, personal interaction has gone down. We are all working to have calls on off-hours to counteract this. I have many more conversations on weekends and during the evenings as I try to connect on and resolve various issues.

5. Anything else to add?

I empathize with the frustration of many students and parents who’ve given up because they think what they’re experiencing is as good as it gets. However, the “crisis model” of distance learning that many schools are using was created with very little preparation —many are still developing a virtual learning option for the first time. This is not a criticism; they’re trying their best, but many simply don’t have the support, tools, or resources they need to succeed. This just means that our company has an opportunity to help make things right.

To learn more about Stride, Inc. (formerly K12 Inc.), visit http://stridelearning.com

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