The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has been the source of many discussions in the past few weeks about the “return to school.” We’re witnessing major public city schools opting for hybrid or fully-remote options, the CDC director and the president are at odds over the White House administration’s suggested guidelines, and many states’ re-entry plans seem to be even more uncertain as we see cases continue to rise across the U.S.

Despite the educational and social-emotional benefits of in-person schooling, recent studies are showing six out of every 10 parents with at least one child in grades K-12 will opt for at-home learning, forgoing sending their children back to school even if re-entry is possible. Underscored by research that continues to show keeping schools closed may help stop the spread and delay a second wave of coronavirus by 40-60 percent, it is fair to say that parents are just plain worried about sending their kids back to school.

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The evidence is clear that school districts should plan for remote learning to be here for the long-haul. As such, it’s no longer an option, but a necessity, to have the technology infrastructure in place to support remote learning.

In order to be successful, school districts need to have the infrastructures in place that can properly house this influx of e-learning data and that have supportive recovery options to make sure the remote learning system remains steady and as downtime-free as possible.

Here at the Val Verde Unified School District (USD) in Perris, California, we’ve had the support of our school administrators to make these investments in hybrid cloud infrastructures that have helped us to meet the demand for online learning, accessible to both students and staff alike, supported by infrastructures that keep systems up and running with as little downtime as possible. Here is how we did it, and how others can follow in this critical investment for remote learning.

How Val Verde embraced the cloud for e-learning

For years, we had a vision of moving Val Verde USD’s entire district (files, data center, etc.) to the cloud. Before the pandemic, cloud computing in education was valued at $8.13 billion in 2016 – due to grow to $25.36 billion by 2021 – showing that the desire was there for cloud-based infrastructures and that many districts were gearing up for their cloud migration journey. The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and stay-at-home orders for the state of California was a major indicator that our district should look to continue gaining awareness and prioritize cloud investments that had been in the works for years.

Traditional on-premise user files, department shared folders, and other internal server environments caused quite the headache for our teachers and school faculty as they began working from home in March – many of whom experienced “working from home” for the first time in their careers as educators. To help ease the transition, Val Verde implemented several tools like virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) remote access, offline files and third-party tools like ClassLink My Files, which gave a quick-fix for remote access to files and the tools to conduct lessons online for the tail end of the schoolyear.

Shortly thereafter, we knew the most logical next step was to move from quick fix to a more long-term, supportive solution for remote learning. Our team began to make inroads on transitioning our traditional file and shared folder storage to Microsoft Azure while also configuring our devices, data center environments, and applications to be managed entirely by Microsoft Intune. All of this work will help Val Verde USD move away from traditional on-premises applications, and allow our sensitive school data, web-based services and servers to be hosted in a hybrid cloud environment via Azure, where it will be safe, secure, and easily accessible from anywhere.

The case for continued remote learning

So why does the cloud matter? Simply put, remote learning can only be successful when our students, teachers, and administrators have complete access from anywhere in the state (or country, even) at any time, without fear that an outage or downtime will thwart their remote education experience. Notably, Val Verde partnered with Veeam to help navigate moving from our traditional on-premise infrastructures to the hybrid cloud, backing up our sensitive data every step of the way.

Remote learning for the long haul

The backup and recovery aspect of this was extremely critical – and must be top of mind for all other school districts who are on a similar IT journey. Think of it this way: if your computer applications go down while you’re in school, you can resort to pencil and paper and hand in your work on your teacher’s desk. If our applications face downtime or we lose files during this time of remote learning, the student and teacher lose days of work, and the backup options are few and far between. It’s no longer a matter of convenience to be able to store your homework in an online portal, or have a clear signal in a video lecture, a failure to have the technology to support remote learning can have real, long-term impacts on a student’s education.

Looking ahead

The truth is, we do not know what the fall is going to look like in the COVID-19 pandemic. We could see a decline in cases and it will theoretically be “safe” to return to schools again, but it’s more likely that school districts and administrators will be making last-minute decisions about what classroom setups will look like, and there will be a real patchwork plan in place that differs county to county.

Amidst the chaos, the end of the summer 2020 allows for a window of opportunity for schools to make a meaningful plan and investment into e-learning technologies and the cloud to ensure that can handle any “return to school” situation. These school districts need to move quickly, build upon the work they did in mid-2020, and set the stage for IT infrastructures that can support remote learning for the future.

If nothing else, the peace of mind to students and parents that they have the option to keep their children at home, safe from the ongoing pandemic, and that they won’t have to risk their education to do so, is something you can’t put a price on.

About the Author:

Matt Penner is the Director of Information and Instructional Technology for the Val Verde Unified School District.