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Report: Lack of School IT Staff Reaching Boiling Point

After surveying close to 400 K-12 districts across the U.S., the Consortium for School Networking found widespread concerns about IT staffing and cybersecurity given the rapid adoption of technology in schools.

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The 2021 CoSN Ed Tech Leadership Survey said several schools' IT teams do not feel prepared or equipped to ensure cybersecurity.
(2021 Ed Tech Leadership Survey)
The Consortium for School Networking (CoSN) released its 2021 Ed Tech Leadership Survey report last week, giving a glimpse into the challenges associated with digital learning, as well as policy recommendations needed to sustain technology initiatives in schools. This year’s report was based on a national survey of nearly 400 districts, providing insight into K-12 IT leaders’ most pressing concerns related to digital equity and staffing to facilitate the rapid pace of changing technology in schools today.

According to the report, conducted with education research nonprofit Ed-Fi Alliance, one thing IT leaders and administrators noted was a lack of personnel approaching a boiling point during online learning, when districts struggled to provide IT support for students and families remotely. More than 60 percent of respondents cited “insufficiencies in their ability to provide remote support."

Sean Casey, manager of strategic partnerships at Ed-Fi Alliance, believes IT leaders and school administrators must work to coordinate between teachers and siloed departments to make the most out of existing technology and staff.

“We strongly encourage technology leaders, the people with systems expertise, to team up with or partner with their instructional leaders and program leaders," he said.

The report noted about 80 percent of respondents said they have systems in place for tracking online course attendance, and 65 percent have measured student participation in some capacity. Still, less than 50 percent said they had thoroughly measured student engagement, and more than half of respondents reported budget constraints as an obstacle to data interoperability between departments.

Casey said students across the U.S. are now using technology in asynchronous and synchronous courses at an unprecedented level, and schools should be able to leverage data on student performance and participation to figure out how best to use these tools. In other words, good data makes for the best ed tech practices and policies.

“From a teacher perspective, it’s pretty challenging to support all of these different learners and different modalities,” he said. “Underneath that, there are several things that fold into that and really make it the challenge that it is.”

The report noted that concerns about digital equity remain, despite federal relief funds geared toward providing students with devices and Internet connectivity. Approximately 90 percent of those surveyed had concerns about learning loss due to inadequate Internet access that disproportionately affects low-income and rural households, as well as students of color.

“It’s really very prevalent across the whole nation – that notion of, ‘How do I make sure that what I’m providing in the way of educational programs and offerings are available to all kids, regardless of any demographic information, and that our participation levels are equitable?’” Casey said.

CoSN CEO Keith Krueger praised what he considered to be a “Herculean” effort by federal and state governments to close the digital divide during the pandemic. He said he hopes the Federal Communications Commission’s $7 billion Emergency Connectivity Fund will further narrow the digital divide, as many households are still without the connection speeds needed for live video streaming.

Krueger said problems with equity extend to school staffing, as well.

“K-12 ed tech, like many other technology sectors, continues to have a major diversity challenge, especially for persons of color. No progress has been seen since we started tracking this several years ago, and gender remains a concern, as women are under-represented IT leaders despite working in the K-12 education field that is predominately female,” he said in an email to Government Technology.

According to the report, 74 percent of districts surveyed require or plan to require staff training in cybersecurity practices. Half of the districts require training for all their staff, and another 18 percent are planning to do so.

Still, Krueger said cybersecurity remains one of the most urgent concerns among K-12 administrators following a record-breaking year for cyber attacks against schools. Because of this, he said, the consortium advocates for additional FCC funding to better equip districts to stave off the onslaught of ransomware and phishing attacks being directed against them.

“It is no surprise that cybersecurity remains the top concern of ed tech leaders,” Krueger said.

“It is foolish to provide broadband connectivity and Wi-Fi if the network is not secure,” he added. “Likewise, we believe addressing cybersecurity is more than just adding tools, which is why we support Congresswoman Doris Matsui’s cybersecurity legislation to require Homeland Security to provide support to K-12 school systems as they do for local governments.”

Krueger thinks CTOs have a key role to play in convincing superintendents, chief financial officers and other education policymakers that “adding devices and applications without increasing human capacity is a disaster.”

“That is particularly the case with cybersecurity, where there is a greater risk, yet a low capacity to address the situation," he said. "School district technology departments have done amazing work of providing remote support to students and families, but finding a sustainable model going forward is essential. If we are ‘changing the way we do learning,’ we need to budget appropriately and rethink the way we staff and provide support, both technical and curricular."
Brandon Paykamian is a staff writer for Government Technology. He has a bachelor's degree in journalism from East Tennessee State University and years of experience as a multimedia reporter, mainly focusing on public education and higher ed.