Jul 16 2021

Improving Learning Continuity with Tech: 4 Ways Schools Can Use Relief Funds

District leaders must plan carefully to implement long-term solutions and maximize the efficiency of the recent influx of federal funding.

When the pandemic closed schools across the country, K­–12 districts undertook the herculean task of moving millions of students and staff to remote learning as quickly as possible. This allowed educators to continue providing learning to students, but the rapid shift wasn’t without difficulties. Among the many setbacks stemming from this upheaval, 57 percent of educators now estimate that students are behind in their social-emotional development by more than three months.

However, there is some good news. After more than a year of closings, the government has allocated pandemic recovery grants to education agencies. The American Rescue Plan Act, signed into law in March, provides $128.5 billion for K–12 institutions. This relief package focuses on getting students back into classrooms and addressing those pandemic setbacks. Among other things, the funding will support the purchase of education technology, IT modernization and robust virtual learning programs.

A unique feature of the relief package is that districts have until 2023 to spend the money. While there are immediate spending priorities for IT leaders, with such a long lead time and few guidelines on how the money should be spent, districts would be wise to pause and ask where technology can help them most. Here are areas where this funding can best benefit continuity of learning in the long term:

1. Improve the Security Posture of K–12 Schools

Improved security must be a top priority. As the network perimeter has shifted beyond the four walls of schools and administrative offices, K–12 cybersecurity-related incidents are rising. This is particularly concerning because school systems are home to a wealth of personal data that threat actors are keen to monetize, including Social Security numbers and health insurance details.

Using government funding to deploy the appropriate tooling, such as endpoint protection and real-time monitoring, can help, but technology is only part of the solution. Cybersecurity is also a people problem. According to the 2021 Verizon Data Breach Investigations Report, 85 percent of cyberattacks involve a human element. And, whether intentional or accidental, staff and students account for the majority of cyber incidents.

Knowledge is key to preventing these events. Rather than tasking IT or network administrators with leading security efforts, districts should consider appointing a CISO or chief privacy officer. Alternatively, they could establish a security task force, elevating those with the right skill sets from within. Available government funding can be allocated to cybersecurity awareness initiatives that train all involved in K–12 education, including students, to be cyber foot soldiers.

DIVE DEEPER: What do K–12 leaders need to know about whaling? 

2. Reduce the Complexity of Technology Environments

As schools have expanded their digital capabilities, tool sprawl has followed. Investments in multiple best-of-breed applications and systems, coupled with an extensive vendor portfolio, mean one thing: complexity. A crowded IT environment creates management and monitoring challenges, security headaches, data integration issues and a high cost of ownership.

For these reasons, many K–12 IT decision-makers may use federal funding to migrate digital assets to the cloud. This can solve many of the complexity issues schools face, but the cloud isn’t a panacea for complicated technology environments. In most instances, districts will need to keep part of their IT infrastructure on-premises. This hybrid environment creates challenges of its own. For instance, traditional IT configuration, management and monitoring technologies may not work across heterogeneous systems. Additionally, as they try to track and control what’s going on, IT teams may find themselves juggling multiple dashboards.

Officials can address complexity by right-sizing and optimizing their existing infrastructure. By taking stock of the district’s IT inventory, they can make informed decisions about whether to use federal funding to consolidate, retire or upgrade technology investments. IT leaders can make these determinations with an eye on better performance, ease of management, enhanced security and reduced costs.

3. Optimize Network Connectivity for Any Learning Environment

In making a case for digital transformation in K–12 education, network connectivity and performance are critical. After all, access to data and services — whether hosted in the cloud or on-premises — is only as good as the internet connection. IT leaders must take into consideration all the spaces their network reaches: to and from the classroom, the office and students’ homes. Without reliable connectivity, students and teachers can’t access the applications and information they need to create a meaningful digital learning environment.

MORE ON EDTECH: Connectivity is key to inclusive tech options for students.

Part of the answer lies in robust Wi-Fi network access points. District leaders can use federal funding to implement or upgrade these elements of their network infrastructure. Beyond that, reliable connectivity requires next-generation capabilities, such as intelligent routing and automated network configuration. Schools can also fund training in management practices that make it easier to scale networks more efficiently, reduce downtime and ensure continuity of learning.

4. Align IT Roadmaps to New Learning Models

Even as schools plan to reopen in the fall, many will continue to offer remote or hybrid learning options for students who can’t yet return to school. A number of students and their families have also found over the past year that they prefer online learning environments. Additionally, school leaders can plan for potential future long-term closures.

Fine-tuning an alternative to face-to-face education remains imperative, and teachers agree. In early 2021, they ranked distance learning as “only slightly better than skipping school completely.” Moving quickly to a remote model during last year’s emergency forced many districts to build the plane as they were flying it. Fortunately, everyone has learned lessons. Thanks to feedback from students, parents and educators, IT leaders can plan their technology expenditures thoughtfully and in alignment with the changing mission of the school district.

This will allow K–12 schools to fund better developed and more positive online learning environments for emergency situations and for students who wish to continue on this path.

This is an unprecedented funding moment for districts. The strategic decisions school leaders make today will ensure the foundation for sustainable continuity of learning — even during the most exceptional or unpredictable circumstances.

RELATED: Find tips for using federal funds strategically in K–12 education.

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