Student safety and security have always been two of our key district goals, but when the global pandemic shut down our physical schools and forced everyone to learn remotely, we quickly found ourselves in unfamiliar territory.
Like any district that was focused primarily on in-person learning, ours not only needed a way for teachers to interact effectively with students online; it also had to be responsible for ensuring users’ safety as they navigated this “new normal” learning environment. This also had to be done quickly, bearing in mind just how swiftly the pandemic impacted our normal operations.
Fortunately, we were already using the Gaggle student safety platform before the pandemic. When we implemented Microsoft Teams for online communications to align with the Office 365 platform (which was already in place), we were also able to transition our brick-and-mortar safety and security over to the digital/online environment.
The decision paid off almost immediately. Our student safety platform worked on the first day that Duval HomeRoom (our online learning platform) opened for business. A situation came up and we were able to learn what was happening and who was involved, and then solve the situation very quickly.
In this instance, a parent emailed us to tell us that a teacher had posted something inappropriate online. Within minutes, we determined that a student (the child of that parent) had posted the information online and “masked it” as if the teacher had said it. We implemented our normal procedures, with the dean calling the parent to discuss the issue. We also showed the parent how the student used the system to post the information on the teacher’s behalf.
This is just one of many instances that prove the need for good safety management in the remote learning environment. Here are four more reasons why all districts should be thinking about this right now:
Screen time is up. We noticed a dramatic increase in screen time and online communications when learning moved off campus as a result of the pandemic. This increase was logical and warranted, but the lack of face-to-face content with teachers and with one another presented new challenges for the district. Unfortunately, our students no longer have access to the support network that they’d have in a traditional school building. They don’t have a guidance counselor, favorite teacher, or coach to talk to after school, and to help them when something is going wrong in their lives.
Students talk to each other. In lieu of talking to a trusted adult, many students are turning to each other for help during the uncertainty. They’re also spending more time at home, where we often don’t have a window into what’s going on. Uncomfortable things may be happening, and we can monitor any issues using a combination of students’ online contributions plus our student safety platform. Just the other day, we worked together to solve an issue that was initially flagged by our student safety platform.
Online is the new “brick-and-mortar.” We’re using Office 365 for email, OneDrive for file sharing, and Microsoft Teams for online conferencing. We already had about 1,200 “innovative educators” on our team before the pandemic, and we moved very rapidly to transition the rest of the district to Office 365 and Teams when it became necessary. Although we had already been using our student safety platform for Office 365 and OneDrive, we then added the student safety platform monitoring for Teams as well. We did this because we know that we had to replace our brick-and-mortar schools with something else. We wanted to be able to keep a finger on the pulse of what’s going on online. That’s not easy to do without the right technology.
Students need our support more than ever. COVID-19 has helped us understand that many of the same safety and security concerns that we’d have in the brick-and-mortar environment still apply in the digital world. We can give students access to rich content, but in doing so, we also open the door for students to be able to “color outside of the lines” or have conversations that may not be positive or productive. We want to be able to address those issues quickly by providing either mental health or academic support.
We can’t just allow the online learning space to be like the wild, Wild West. To other district leaders that are operating in new territory thanks to COVID-19, having a student safety platform in place gives students access to rich content while ensuring that their online conversations and contributions are both positive and productive. When they’re not, the technology steps in to identify the issue, alert the district, and take the appropriate measures to keep students safe and secure.
Jim Culbert is CIO for Duval County Public Schools and Dr. Diana Greene is Superintendent of Duval County Public Schools.