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As the country struggles to navigate the challenges of COVID-19, schools in particular have had to make some difficult operating decisions for their students and teachers. Some have resumed the school year in-person whereas others have opted for virtual learning, and either option contains their own challenges. For many schools though, there are still several obstacles that stand in the way for online learning, such as not having strong enough internet bandwidth or control of the content students can access. While these are uncertain and complicated times, consider these tips and guidelines to ensure the transition from in-person to virtual learning is smooth and safe from IT vulnerabilities.

Consider a Cloud-Based Content Filtering System

While physically at school, students have limited access to websites and internet content that spans beyond safe learning programs and general education sites. When school-provided devices are taken home though, it becomes more difficult to filter content that children are exposed to. In order to effectively filter, you must implement the same supporting systems the school network uses on the personal device itself.

One way to control content access is through a cloud-based filter. The benefit of this software is that it follows the device wherever it goes, which is a great solution if the device is not connected to the school’s network. Schools that previously did not utilize this type of software are now switching over to protect students at home from websites they wouldn’t have access to on the school’s network.

Another difficult and costly decision schools are having to make is whether to purchase and provide devices for students to access online learning platforms or if students can utilize their own personal devices, similar to a Bring-Your-Own-Device (BYOD) model. Although it’s the more expensive option, schools may be encouraged to provide school-owned devices, allowing them to download the cloud-based filtering software directly to the tablet or PC. This also ensures that all devices are under warranty, have updated software and allow easy access to online classrooms. For schools going the BYOD route, the cloud-based filtering can be extended to those devices in most cases, allowing them to download the content filtering system directly to that device.

Assess Internet Bandwidth and Network Capacity

If schools return virtually, teachers may need to livestream multiple classrooms simultaneously, putting a heavy strain on the internet connection and local network infrastructure (wired and wireless). To prevent potential glitches in the livestream, it is crucial to ensure your internet infrastructure can support the heavy increase in traffic.

To make sure you have enough bandwidth to stream video to families at home, reach out to your local internet provider to see what options are available and/or consult with your IT team to review and identify potential capacity constraints. If the school is already under a contract, there is typically an option to renegotiate and increase bandwidth. To accommodate daily bandwidth requirements and multiple streaming classrooms, schools between 400 and 500 students should consider a minimum bandwidth capacity of 100 Mbps (megabits per second) upload/download running on a fiber optic connection. However, between 200 and 300 Mbps is ideal to support streaming and daily internet usage in addition to accommodating potential spikes during the day.

Although it is an expensive investment on the frontend, implementing cloud systems and increasing internet bandwidth are beneficial in the long-term. This is especially true for schools that may be forced to return to virtual learning despite their original plan to start back in the classroom as they will already have the necessary means for efficient virtual learning in place.

Increase Student and Staff Awareness

Whether working from home or accessing classrooms virtually, more users are online, leaving home networks much more vulnerable than in the workplace or school. IT providers are seeing an uptick in phishing attacks, so it’s important to be cognizant of potential breaches and invest in business-class endpoint protection systems and focus on end-user awareness and training. There are a host of cyber training platforms available, but even just an informal nudge from the management team reminding folks to be cautious when opening email attachments and links can be beneficial.

For endpoint protection, programs that directly target the source of the attack and isolate it from spreading through the entire network are available and recommended to prevent potentially detrimental breaches.

We’re Here to Help

Although difficult to have all of the right answers on how to safely return to school this fall, having a plan in place for virtual learning is essential. Schools that consider these recommended safety measures and processes will experience a smoother transition for their students and faculty as they adapt to and work through the challenges of online learning. To learn how Bennett Thrasher’s Technology Services practice can help, contact Jim Dougherty by calling 770.396.2200.