There are many questions surrounding when and how schools will reopen come the fall. But, at some point, they will hold face-to-face classes again. When they do, school districts need to prepare for a radically “new normal.” 

Schools will need to ensure that physical spaces meet public health guidelines to prevent further outbreaks and keep students and educators safe. It’s a tall order, and one that will require educational leaders, public health officials, community leaders and policymakers to collaborate. IT leaders will also play a critical role as they have already in helping move students and teachers into a potential mixture of in classroom and remote learning.

As IT administrators prepare to support their school districts in reopening, here are four areas that require consideration:

1. Safe management of IT equipment

When thinking about how to keep students and educators safe and prevent the spread of the coronavirus, classroom technology should be a primary focus. From teacher workstations to smartboards to student devices, these high-touch surfaces must be kept free of contamination.

While much of this responsibility will fall on teachers to enforce classroom hygiene standards and clean surfaces frequently, IT plays a role, too. 

“Mobile carts are going to need to go away completely,” predicted Dave Termunde, chief technology officer at Arbor Park School District 145 in Illinois. He noted that keeping the carts clean would be a time-consuming and almost impossible task. His own district was already moving to a one-to-one model before the pandemic, and it has now moved entirely to a one-to-one model for all kindergartners through eighth-graders.

Another shared piece of equipment that can create safety issues is headsets. “Headsets and headphones have always been a school-provided item because of state testing, but after COVID, a lot of sharing will change,” Termunde said. “We’ve made the decision that everyone needs their own headset.”

Even styluses are a consideration. “Kids have switched out or shared their styluses in the past, but they can’t do that now,” Termunde said. “So, we’re working on a way to tether them to the devices.”

However, if schools simply don’t have the budget to move to a one-to-one device model or headsets, then David Peterson, director of education sales at Kensington, recommends using locked charging cabinets for devices and having an audit system with checks and balances. “You need a system where no device goes in until it’s cleaned,” he said. “And it’s something everyone needs to be really fastidious about.”

2. Continued support of remote learning

Even if schools reopen with face-to-face class time, it’s likely to be in a hybrid fashion, both to address space constraints and vulnerable populations of students. In a report by Chiefs for Change and Johns Hopkins University on how schools should reopen, the authors note that it may be necessary to stagger school attendance, which likely means that some distance learning will continue.

Depending on how schools set it up, students may move back and forth between distance learning and the classroom. This means that IT needs to think about how to best equip kids for this type of hybrid learning model and how to protect the equipment at the same time.

Peterson recommended that when buying headsets, districts look at USB models, because the jack plug-ins of traditional headsets are more likely to break off in devices. He also noted that with a USB connector, student devices typically have more than one plug connector for the device. 

Another recommendation by Termunde and Peterson is carrying sleeves to protect the devices when they’re dropped as well as to help ensure that devices remain safe from contamination. “Parents are going to want to know that their kids have a safe carrying case, and no one else has touched it,” Termunde said. “Cases need to be student-owned, not shared, with their name on it.”

Peterson also pointed out that ergonomics should be considered. He noted that kids who use their devices while sitting on the couch or bed can end up with sore necks and a lot more screen glare. “Kids could use a laptop stand — it’s very thin. They can put it in their backpack — but it gets the laptop up a little bit, so it’s much more ergonomic.” 

3. Support for a hybrid teaching model

While districts have already worked with teachers to equip them with the necessary hardware and software to teach remotely, they will need to continue to evolve the teaching setup as teachers head back to the classroom but may still teach online to some students at home — or even still teach remotely part of the time.

“If a teacher has 10 students in the classroom and 10 at home, we need to think about if we need a stand for their iPad, and if they need a headset and microphone so they can be on a Teams meeting,” Termunde said.

If teaching from home persists, docking stations can help teachers maintain a more ergonomic setup with a regular keyboard and mouse and make it easier to mirror the type of presentation station they have at home. Device security should also be a consideration — whether that’s using privacy screens or using biometric locking devices, it’s important that when teachers take their devices home that student data remains private and secure.

4. Plan for beyond the “new normal” 

While no one is certain yet how or when schools will reopen, the one certainty is that things will be different.

“No matter what, it’s not going to be normal,” Termunde said. “Education in general is not techwise where it needs to be, and it’s been a little bit of a wake-up call.” He predicted that the days of computer labs are over, as are the days of carrying around a 15-year-old textbook.

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act provides districts with funding for technology. This can help schools invest in additional technology to support the adaptations needed to keep students and educators safe.

However, Termunde counseled, districts need to think about not just what they need to support kids today but also long term.

It’s a whole ongoing sustainability issue,” Termunde said. “Districts need to think about the long term, not what’s a Band-Aid now, but what the long-term plan will be.”

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