Creating Secure and Equitable Learning Environments

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In this recent Tech & Learning virtual roundtable, Dr. Kecia Ray talked with a panel of experts about what they’ve learned in the past year, and how these lessons will inform their planning moving forward -- including the ways they are keeping their districts safe from cyber threats.  

The on-demand version is available here 

Key Takeaways

Remote learning on the fly. “My greatest challenge was taking a five-year 1-to-1 plan and implementing it in three months,” said AJ Phillips, Director of Information Technology for Prince William County Public Schools in Virginia, the largest public school district in the state. “And then training, families and students at home on how to use them. You know, setting up these virtual meetings and not being able to meet with them in person and hold their hand and touch the device and all those things.” To improve access, Phillips set up 38 parking lots around the district with wifi--families could drive in and students could connect to the internet with their devices and learn.

David Sanders, Chief Technology Officer at Mesa Public Schools in Arizona talked about the challenge of distributing 35-40,000 devices in three weeks, and then figuring out how to support the families and students after that. For example, they had to extend help desk hours beyond five o'clock to help with logins and other device-related issues such as remote security, including ramping up conversations with students and parents to protect against phishing attacks.

“Usually when they're on the network it's easy to remote into them,” said Sanders. “So now we had to do a paradigm shift, think outside the box, and do some type of mobile device management for those devices. How do we manage them, how do we make sure they stay up-to-date from a security perspective.” 

The phishing hole. Since the introduction of remote learning, Prince William County Schools has seen phishing attacks double, according to Phillips. “I always joke that we can't be the wild west but we can't be Fort Knox, either,” she said. “We need to find a happy medium for students and staff.” 

Efforts were focused on making sure everyone in the district was provided with the training to recognize phishing emails. “Interestingly enough, I think our students did better than our staff in recognizing phishing emails,” Phillips said, adding that staff is often so busy that it’s more of a challenge to stay vigilant with every email. Two-factor authentication and VPN access has also been added. 

“It’s not if we get hit but when we get hit, and what is our recovery plan,” said Phillips.

Mesa Public Schools has also taken physical measures such as installing malware protection, but education continues to be critical in preventing cyber attacks, said Sanders. “Parents are seeing these phishing emails, and they're thinking that somebody is personally attacking their kid, and they don't realize it's just a computer-generated email,” he said. “So we did have a lot of conversations with parents about situations like that.”

That training extends to staff as well. “I tell people I’d rather have you bother me about a suspicious link beforehand rather than come to me afterward once you have malware on your device,” said Sanders.

Staying informed is also critical, particularly regularly checking FBI K-12 cybersecurity updates.

Promoting equity. In addition to the aforementioned wifi parking lot solution, Prince William County Public Schools partnered with local internet providers and gave hotspots to families who needed access. The challenge now is how to provide access over the long term, with potential solutions ranging from a private LTE to districts becoming their own IP providers--all of which begs questions around cost, sustainability, and practicality. E-rate funding, Title IV, and more Covid-related federal grants could help provide the support needed to permanently close equity gaps.  

Bridget Duff, Director of Education Vertical Sales Solutions for Cox Business, discussed the company’s Connect2Compete program, which offers low-cost home internet access and has helped more than 130,000 students and families. Cox also offers its Digital Academy, designed to support online literacy and learning. 

Lunch 'n Learn with Tech & Learning

We hope you can join us for these regular District Leadership Lunch ‘n Learn Roundtable series, hosted by Dr. Kecia Ray. In these events, districts from across the U.S. share their strategic plans, the challenges they are facing, and the creative solutions they are using to support students and teachers. Register for our upcoming events here

More from T&L: Lunch 'n Learn roundtable recaps

Ray Bendici is the Managing Editor of Tech & Learning and Tech & Learning University. He is an award-winning journalist/editor, with more than 20 years of experience, including a specific focus on education.