Crucial Tech Leadership for Business Continuity in Schools

 Jennifer Carey, Director of Technology and Innovation at the Temple Beth Am Day School, FL, is among the many leaders in independent schools who are considering next steps for their communities should the coronavirus require school closure. In this post, she shares her thinking about the steps technology leaders can take now to prepare for the possibility for emergency procedures. Jennifer also serves on the ATLIS Board. -- SD

[15-minute read]

Jennifer Carey HeadshotJennifer Carey
Director of Technology and Innovation
Temple Beth Am Day School, FL

As federal, state, and local governments have charged schools and businesses to brush off contingency plans and prepare for the potential of long-term closures, independent schools can assess their readiness for business continuity in the event of a long-term school closure. Many schools already have existing plans to address closures in the advent of natural disaster. These existing plans can be a good starting point for building a COVID-19 contingency plan. However, institutions will need to be mindful that closures due to COVID-19 may be unique in that they could last longer than plans allow for, and employees may become ill or need to care for family members who are ill. Of course, any emergency plan would need to take these factors into account.

Technology leaders in independent schools can provide crucial services to their schools in several areas outlined below.

Hardware

Do not assume that all users have access to computers at home. With the proliferation of tablets and smartphones, many individuals have foregone expensive home computers as they have found these devices meet their needs. At this time, it is important to reassess the hardware availability (and configuration) for your faculty and staff. 

  • Do your employees use desktop computers, laptops, chromebooks, and/or tablets to do their work? 
  • Will they have adequate access to devices should they need to work remotely for an extended period of time? 
  • Will their school-issued devices work easily off-site or require a new configuration? 
  • If any of your users do not have a portable device that will meet all of their work needs outside of the school, have you devised a plan to address this? 

If you find that you will need to provide several users with computing devices in order to effectively work from home, there are several options you can pursue. If your institution has the financial capacity to make a swath of mobile device purchases for your employees, then this is the obvious solution. However, most institutions simply do not have this capacity. There are a few options schools can explore. 

  • Consider offering employees interest-free loans to purchase personal computers. These types of employee perks are popular as well as low-risk and inexpensive for the employer (as they are re-paid through automatic payroll deductions).
  • Advertise any purchase plans to your employees to encourage them to take advantage of it. 
  • Consider repurposing devices that you offer to students (e.g. a laptop or Chromebook cart) for employees. 

As a shut-down could happen with little or no notice, it is a good idea to ensure that all faculty and staff have access to necessary computing devices at their homes as soon as possible. This may require some intentional messaging and action. For example, your school may need to require that faculty and staff bring laptop computers home on a nightly basis.

In terms of students, this is a time to reassess their access as well. Again, it is a falsity to assume that all students will have access to computers and high speed internet at home.

Partner with your Admissions Office to identify students who may be especially in need of support for resources at home. If your institution does not already provide devices to low-income students, consider a program to do so. It is not uncommon for low-income students to rely on school devices and connectivity for their work. Be aware that some students may rely on public libraries and/or restaurants with free Wi-Fi; these options may be closed or have limited hours during a COVID-19 outbreak.  You'll want to consider providing some students with portable hot-spots to ensure uninterrupted access to the internet for their instructional needs during a school closure.

This would also be a time to review school policies about school-provided devices (e.g., allowing students to bring school issued devices home).

Open and clear communication about your plan for distance instruction can help the school assess the capacities of families to provide access to their children.

Software and Remote Accessibility

With the popularity of cloud computing, such as G-Suite for Education and Office 365, many schools have largely moved documents and user storage to the cloud, thus making remote work even easier. However, it is not uncommon for some users to continue using server storage. This might simply be a hold-over of “this is how I have always done it” or the lack of universal deployment. Now is the time to assess your remote computing capabilities and make applicable changes. 

  • When feasible (and secure) have users migrate their files to a cloud platform.
  • If some programs or materials must rely on server access, ensure that those users have the ability (and knowledge) to remote in so that they can work. As dispersed working environments can increase risk, ensure that your cybersecurity basics are up-to-date.At the very least, mitigate risk by making sure all users have two-factor authentication enabled on their email and cloud-based accounts.
  • Use this opportunity to provide a cybersecurity training refresher to employees as lack of face-to-face contact may make breaches longer to detect.
  • Assure that faculty and staff can effectively communicate with each other. While cell phones and email can help, they are not always effective for asynchronous and synchronous communication, so you may wish to consider enabling Hangouts Meet in G-Suite or upgrading to a Skype plan for your office for group video conferencing capability.
  • Consider investing in an office communication platform, such as Slack. This low-cost option can help individuals effectively stay in touch.

Invest in “Just in Time PD”

If you are employing new software, tools and resources, users may feel “on their own,” it’s important to provide some “just in time” professional development. It may feel like everyone should know how to use Hangouts Meet or save a Word Document to OneDrive. However, as most users don’t have this need on a day-to-day basis, they may feel a little lost (especially if a sudden work closure makes everyone on edge). 

  • Provide scaled, appropriate professional development for all users. 
  • If possible, set up simple, online instruction videos and “how to’s” that they can access online for a refresher. 
  • Ensure that all users know how to reach the help desk if they need additional support or assistance. 

The Not-So-Paperless Office

In spite of all of the digital possibilities in the remote office, this does not entirely eliminate the need for print work. Communications and Business Offices are often the one place where it’s not possible to get away from printed mailings, formal signatures on checks, printed audits, or signed contracts. 

  • Re-examine the necessity of printed mailings and investigate alternatives for digital publications; come up with a communication plan should you be unable to implement an alternative quickly.
  • Now may be the time to review compliance options and alternatives with your school’s counsel related to business matters such as check signatures and printed audit reports.
  • Reach out to vendors who may be willing to accept credit card payments in lieu of checks or to delay payment until the office reopens.

It’s How High You Bounce

National health emergencies, such as the one we may see with COVID-19, breed a lot of fear, confusion, and angst. Keep this in mind with your community. More than anything, it’s important to be flexible and agile. To paraphrase George Patton, it’s not how far you fall, but how high you can bounce. Model for your community flexibility and resilience, not just with hardware, software, and policies but interpersonally. A time of crisis is a time for leadership to demonstrate its compassion for all of its constituents. For your school to not just survive a crisis, but thrive afterwards, it’s time to demonstrate how high you can bounce.

Related Resources from ATLIS

Susan Davis, You Can Do It: Online and Blended Learning When You Need It Most, ATLIS Blog, 27 February 2020.

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