An overwhelming mix of IT challenges is hitting school districts hard. Three big ones: building tech equity into K-12 schools and sustaining it; training educators at all levels how to prevent and respond to rising numbers of cyberattacks; and dealing with IT staff shortages at a time when schools are using digital tools more widely than ever across all grade levels.
Education Week spoke to teachers, principals, and chief technology officers from around the country about how they are tackling these challenges and what their plans are for next school year. Here is a look at the strategies and tactics three school districts are using to improve digital equity, upgrade cybersecurity, and address staffing challenges.
Building digital equity into the system school by school: Wake County Schools, N.C.
One of the most effective and cost-saving strategies to improve digital equity challenges in the Wake County schools in North Carolina was getting school social workers involved.
“When COVID first hit, I would love to say we were ahead of the game, but we were not,” said Marlo Gaddis, the chief technology officer for the district. “We were not a 1-to-1 [computing] district. So we had some immediate work to do.”
The 160,000-student district purchased 50,000 Chromebooks in the spring of 2020. It also put in an order for 5,000 Wi-Fi hotspots, followed by an additional order to reach 16,000. Then it started rolling out the Chromebooks to all students (it is now a 1-to-1 district) and handed out hotspots to families who said they needed them. Those efforts were paid for through a 7-year strategic funding plan from the county.
“What we found out very quickly is the definition of need is very different for different people,” she said. In some cases, there was no technology at all available in the home; in others, there were five or six kids sharing one digital device and limited Wi-Fi bandwidth; and in others, there was not nearly as much need.
What we found out very quickly is the definition of need is very different for different people
Essentially, the problem was there was no gatekeeper to evaluate a family’s economic need for Wi-Fi hotspots.
The gatekeepers are now the social workers in each school. They determine if a family meets the threshold for receiving tech help. “The goal is to make sure our most-needy families get what they need,” said Gaddis.
Gaddis said an even bigger digital equity challenge for this school year and beyond will be around quality use of technology at home.
Daniel Simons, the principal of Buckhorn Creek Elementary School in the Wake County schools, agrees. “As we distance ourselves more from the pandemic, you’ll see that gap between families with sophisticated tech use versus those with less [sophisticated use].”
Kristen Schaible, a 2nd grade teacher at Buckhorn who taught an all-remote class of 20 students during the 2020-21 school year, said one way to address those quality use challenges at home is to not assign formal homework to students. That is a schoolwide policy at Buckhorn that was in place before the pandemic.
Getting everyone involved in preventing cyberattacks: Lakota Local Schools, Ohio
More than 50 new laws in 30 states were passed in 2021 that address cybersecurity issues for K-12 schools either directly or indirectly, according to a January report by the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN). The new laws made changes to rules and regulations around required incident reporting, state agency funding, and the protection of sensitive cybersecurity data.
But for district chief technology officers like Todd Wesley of the Lakota schools in Ohio, the real protections start at the school level with greater awareness of the threat of cyberattacks and training on how to prevent them.
In the 17,000-student district, all employees are required to complete an annual district cybersecurity professional development program in the fall or when they join as a new employee.
“Cybersecurity is everyone’s responsibility,” said Wesley in an email interview. “It’s no longer something that happens in the shadows of the ‘technology department.’ It’s not a one-off or a check box. It must be part of today’s norm for all staff.”
Cybersecurity is everyone’s responsibility. It’s no longer something that happens in the shadows of the ‘technology department.’
All employees are educated about email best practices for preventing cyberattacks, school data access/sharing requirements, and relevant understanding of federal laws and regulations such as the Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). “Most of all,” Wesley emphasized, “each employee should know that if anything looks odd, wrong, or suspicious, no matter how small, to contact their administrator, technology department, or both.”
Krista Heidenreich, the district’s director of digital/professional learning and the administrator of the Virtual Learning Option, an online learning program, has not noticed an increase in attempted cyberattacks (although national data shows the number of attacks is rising). Even so, she recognizes that just one successful attack could disrupt learning in significant ways, especially since most schools are now using more digital learning tools than ever before. “Cybersecurity is a constant concern and something we all play a role in,” she said in an email.
Kim Carlson, an innovation specialist at Woodland Elementary in the Lakota schools, echoes that sentiment. “We are certainly applying digital tools more to student learning,” she said in an email. “Our goal is to keep that growth going.”
That is why the school district integrates cybersecurity best practices into its digital learning sessions for teachers, covering issues such as student account security, app security, and the importance of sharing digital documents only with those who are required to be working in those documents.
Addressing the cascading effects of IT staffing shortages: Wayne Township school district, Ind.
Pete Just, the chief operations and technology officer for the 16,000-student Wayne Township school district in Indiana, said most of the turnover in IT staff has been due to retirements, entry-level employees leaving, and increased stress. He has seen about a 50 percent turnover rate in entry-level positions, and he lost a new manager this year when the demands of the job “just became too overwhelming,” he said in an email.
What makes the situation more difficult is the increasing competition for IT talent from companies based in the area doing business in logistics, technology services, pharmaceuticals, and auto manufacturing. “Recruitment is harder today because there are so many options. We’ve found that continuing to push the K-12 sense of purpose and meaning through word of mouth has been effective. For our current team members, we’ve formed a social committee whose members are fun and creative people who are making even virtual get togethers more fun.”
But the staffing challenges are taking a toll. “It stresses the whole staff out much more. What used to be fixed in a day now can take several, and the talent to provide quick solutions may not be at the ready when principals need it. They have been very patient.”
What used to be fixed in a day now can take several, and the talent to provide quick solutions may not be at the ready when principals need it.
Sandra Squire, principal of Ben Davis High School in Wayne Township, said in an email that when her school is short on technology staff, “it impacts everything we do.”
The list of tech to-dos can sound exhausting: broken copying machines, AV systems not working, glitches in student and staff computers, troubles with the public announcement system, and phones not working. “Our tech team, even being down, still responds in a timely manner, but much of what is needed is instant, so teachers have to troubleshoot,” said Squire.
That need for quick troubleshooting is due in part to the fact that every student in the 3,000-student school has a school-issued Chromebook that they can use in school and at home.
“The most important [IT] task is to ensure students have access,” said Squire. “So much of what we do is online. If a student’s device is not working, or the Internet is down, it impacts whether a student can access the curriculum or not.”