Few sectors have felt the heavy hand of COVID as severely as our schools, with the last 12 months seeing children deprived of a traditional education as the pandemic has continued to evolve and adapt. But while the latter half of the 2019-2020 school year was seen as something of a write-off for many, a beacon of hope has been cast by the Prime Minister’s recent announcement that schools will be opening again on March 8.
There are, of course, going to be those who view this news with a degree of scepticism but there are going to be thousands more who welcome the chance for our kids to get back to school. Not only is it going to take a major burden off the parents struggling with balancing their own work lives with home learning, but it also marks the first step on a roadmap that leads to a precipice of normality.
But with the relatively sudden announcement comes its own set of challenges. Are schools going to be adequately equipped, for example, to cope with this sudden influx? And that’s before you even factor in the complications of mask wearing and social distancing. Then there’s the elephant in the room - the IT of it all.
To gain some insight into how schools are going to cope over the next five months with students who have spent the last year relying on remote learning, we surveyed 43 school IT managers based in the UK. We’ve already touched on what they thought about the challenges faced when schools first moved to remote teaching and what challenges they faced when schools reopened last September but now, let’s discuss their concerns for 2021, and how they’re hoping to better their school’s IT going forward.
When schools return, the first few months in the lead up to the summer holiday are bound to be rough. Perhaps the most pressing issue is the outdated equipment. While the first wave of the pandemic exposed the digital divide in terms of how many disadvantaged students didn’t have access to necessary hardware at home, the return to schools on March 8 is most likely going to underline just how ill-equipped the schools themselves are to face a more digital future.
Reliable student access to ICT equipment both at home and at school is an immediate issue that will need to be resolved ASAP. Aside from the computers and workstations, meanwhile, one of our IT managers suggested: “replacing the Promethean IWBs with Interactive Touch Screens to remove the need for data projectors and all the cabling that they require.”
Broadband stability in a school is going to become more of an issue as a change in networking requirements to accommodate the shift from LAN to WiFi and the need for increased internet bandwidth comes into play. Then there’s the problem of students that can’t return to school, and ensuring they have the right and reliable equipment to allow them to access lessons online. Because, while schools will be going back in a couple of weeks, there has been a fundamental change in how children are educated and, whether we like it or not, remote learning via services such as Microsoft Teams is going to stay with us and become more of an integrated part of our learning experiences.
Some IT managers have noted challenges arising as a result of this, such as difficulties in recalling devices that have been sent home with students and the need for off-site backup solutions. One IT manager added: “Although our tech and expertise has improved, my biggest concerns are the hardware holding up to greater bandwidth.”
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In the initial post-lockdown months, budgets are going to be stretched tighter than ever before and schools need to start prioritising IT. The average school IT suite will be stuffed full of unreliable elderly computers that might be as old as the kids using them, and so many of our surveyed IT managers suggested they were not being given adequate budgets to replace them.
Not only that, but the costs of equipment are bound to soar in the coming months due to excessive demand. The solution here is for schools and IT managers to work together in outlining realistic budgets and not allowing COVID expenditures to cut into the IT budget. And that’s before we even approach the potential repair costs for broken or outdated equipment.
Whereas IT was once a standalone subject it is now something woven into almost every subject and every aspect of school life. As technology continues to improve in the next five years, schools will need to start preparing their staff and parents to use this technology effectively.
Staff will not only have to be taught how to best utilise the hardware and software but also how to deal with potential security threats like email phishing scams, and helping students understand how to work digitally. According to one of our IT managers, one area that was also being overlooked was: “the ability of support staff to access internal servers remotely if we go into another lockdown.”
Ageing servers can be updated (or moved to the cloud) and computers can be replaced but one thing that can’t be updated or replaced (at least as easily) is the staff. With less than a fortnight until schools return, it’s vital that IT managers are allowed to communicate with teachers and bring them up to speed. That’s the most vital immediate threat - the first day back at school and a sea of blank faces.
IT managers need to ensure teachers are ready and willing to engage and teachers need to be prepared to listen and react accordingly. It’s going to be a difficult few months but as long as we’re all in it together and have the right gear and the right ideas, we should be able to see out the 2020-2021 term on a high note.
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