How CTS Helps New York Schools Resolve Online Security and Digital Equity Issues

Prior to the pandemic, some schools paid only scant attention to online security.

Before COVID-19 led schools to adopt remote learning, it was relatively easy to ignore online security issues within the four walls of the school building. Sure, once in a while, a student might (un)intentionally navigate to a problematic website, download a virus-ridden file, or inadvertently access other students’ information. Still, such instances were few and far between, more a “bug” of in-person instruction where technology played a subordinate role to traditional methods.

For teachers and staff members, too, online security was something the school might cover at the beginning or end of the school year during a building-wide professional development session. Teachers were told not to click on suspicious links sent via email or share students’ information outside established channels. Still, the number of times teachers encountered these and similar issues were relatively small.

As with other schools across the country, most teachers in New York City schools were blissfully unaware of the many perils of online learning. After all, their students spent a proportionally smaller amount of time on internet-connected school-issued devices than they did interacting with their peers, sitting at their desks listening to a teacher lecture, or attending recess, lunch, and extracurricular activities.

Similarly, digital equity issues were less apparent during traditional, in-person instruction.

Likewise, while teachers were likely aware that some of their students came from more privileged backgrounds than others, these disparities between “haves” and “have nots” didn’t necessarily impact students’ access to instructional materials. Even if a student lacked internet access at home, it didn’t matter: the school provided a wireless connection the student could use to access Google Classroom, collaborate with her peers using online instructional platforms, and send messages to her teachers with a few clicks. In the event a student needed internet access for a homework assignment, after-school programs invariably offered a “study hall” during which the student could continue working on the assignment.

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In short, schools found ways to mitigate digital equity issues through in-person means, either by limiting the extent to which students depended on school-issued devices to accomplish their work or by offering opportunities for students to take advantage of the school’s online resources during non-instructional hours.

The pandemic forced NYC schools to rapidly scale remote learning programs.

As it did in cities across the country, however, the pandemic fundamentally shifted schools’ traditional understandings of instruction and forced them to rapidly scale remote learning programs to ensure students continued learning during city-wide lockdowns.

Whereas some schools used to get by with a single Chromebook cart or just one WiFi hotspot, the pandemic exposed the vulnerabilities of low-tech. schools. Caught flat-footed by the needs of remote learning, these and other less-resourced schools scrambled to locate enough devices to reach each of their learners and sought to identify which students, if any, lacked internet access at home. The problem? Everyone else was scrambling to purchase student devices, WiFi hotspots, webcams, and other distance learning essentials at the same time. In the mad dash to set up remote learning programs, many schools and, in turn, students lost out.

For schools that successfully launched remote learning programs, however, the challenges didn’t end there. Forced to adapt their instructional methods overnight to accommodate distance learning, many teachers did double duty as both an instructional leader and technology troubleshooter. From students who forgot their passwords to parents who couldn’t find their child’s Zoom link or an online homework assignment, remote learning demanded that teachers provide instruction and ensure students’ technology was functioning properly. Without a working Chromebook or Google classroom account, students had little hope of accessing instructional content in a way that approximated the in-person learning environment.

As teachers began to use Zoom more frequently, however, gaps in online security emerged.

Zoom, in particular, provided a lifeline for teachers as they struggled to adapt in-person instructional techniques to the remote learning environment. With a single link, a teacher could bring her students together via videoconference, provide the day’s lesson by sharing her screen, and even allow students to join “breakout” rooms with one another to work collaboratively on assignments.

As Zoom began to scale across schools, however, security issues emerged. With so many Zoom links floating around even within a single classroom, inadvertent disclosures of classroom-specific links inevitably occurred. What’s more, sophisticated online actors were able to infiltrate otherwise secure student home networks, inserting themselves into classrooms’ personal meeting rooms in a phenomenon known as “Zoom bombing.” In the most egregious cases, these bad actors displayed inappropriate content or used offensive language in front of students. The problem became so worrisome that many school districts, including those in New York City, shifted to other platforms like Microsoft Teams they felt would prove more secure.

Likewise, issues of digital equity threatened to compromise student learning.

Even more troubling, many students lacked basic internet access at home that would enable them to engage with online instructional content. A Chromebook was of little use, for example, to a student whose apartment wasn’t connected to the internet or whose service was too unreliable for videoconferencing and other high-bandwidth programming.

Even students who had reliable internet access at home often struggled to troubleshoot common technology issues. Like teachers, some parents were forced to moonlight as technology troubleshooters and support their students in accessing classroom Zoom links, logging-in to online instructional platforms, or locating assignments on Google Classroom. Alternatively, if students’ parents were “essential workers,” students may have been on their own during the school day, forced to resolve both simple and complex technology issues on their own, or risk missing out on the day’s instruction.

CTS supports online security efforts by training teachers in commonly used online platforms.

In the pandemic’s early days, CTS supported NYC schools in launching their distance learning programs and offered ongoing support to its partner schools who wanted to train their teachers to use common online instructional platforms for traditional, in-person instruction. For instance, CTS could push into a professional development session at the start of a school year or conduct more targeted trainings on a particular topic with a smaller group of teachers. As the pandemic demonstrated, all of the technology resources in the world mean little if teachers, students, and family members lack the know-how to make the most of the school’s software investments. By providing ongoing training and support to its partner schools, CTS helps ensure that teachers and school leaders can easily shuffle between in-person and distance learning as needed.

CTS can also help schools devise ways to limit the impact of digital inequities.

Similarly, CTS supported its NYC partner schools in procuring the requisite number and type of learning devices to support distance learning. Drawing upon decades of experience in the educational technology sector, our team was able to do what may have seemed impossible, navigating global supply chains to source, order, and help distribute distance learning hardware to schools in need.

While many schools have transitioned back to full-time, in-person instruction, our team has helped school leaders secure WiFi hotspots and other “fixes” to common digital equity issues, helping to ensure that each student can make the most of the school’s instructional offerings. With each WiFi hotspot that’s distributed, a student who otherwise lacks access to distance learning offerings no longer needs to stay after school to finish their homework assignment or travel to a local library with consistent internet access.

Our transparently priced service packages can support a diverse array of schools.

Finally, our transparently priced service packages give our NYC partners and other schools across the country certainty. When school leaders know how much they can expect to pay for managed IT services each month—and the precise scope of services they can expect to receive—they can devote scarce financial resources to other instructional priorities, including classroom libraries, new curriculum sets, or even additional technology to support student learning.

While some schools may be tempted to invest in an “as needed” IT provider, doing so can prove problematic. If a costly technology emergency occurs, a school could be caught having to shift financial resources from teaching and learning to resolving technology issues. By contrast, CTS can ensure continuity of services at a predictable cost with a flat-rate service model.

At CTS, we take care of the technology so that schools can focus on their unique missions.

Our team has decades of experience in the educational technology space. Rather than mere technology experts, we view ourselves as deeply ingrained in the work of our partner schools and understand the unique technology-related challenges that arise in the education space. To better serve our partner schools, we invest time in understanding each school’s unique instructional design, financial resources, and long-term goals. We then build our technology services around those goals to meet the needs of schools large and small, new and established. Contact us today to learn more about our services and how we can help your school accomplish its unique mission.