Access to high-speed internet and challenges from the COVID-19 pandemic top the list of hurdles IT leadership departments have tackled this year

11 facts about K-12 IT leadership

Access to high-speed internet and challenges from the COVID-19 pandemic top the list of hurdles IT leadership departments have tackled this year

Broadband access and the ever-growing equity gap are among K-12 IT leaders’ top concerns, according to CoSN’s annual IT Leadership Survey.

The survey, released in collaboration with the Ed-Fi Alliance and other partners, is based on a national survey of nearly 400 school systems and provides a nuanced look at the challenges K-12 IT leadership has faced during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We were proud to once again work alongside the CoSN team in developing this report,” said Sean Casey, manager of strategic partnerships at the Ed-Fi Alliance, a nonprofit devoted to helping school districts and states achieve data interoperability. “At Ed-Fi, our goal is to define data standards to solve problems shared by all educators and to arm the learning community with useful information, as found in this report, for conscientious decision-making that leads to better outcomes for learners everywhere.”

1. Efforts to expand broadband access outside of school have increased dramatically. In 2020, 49 percent of respondents did not provide off-campus services, compared to just 5 percent in 2021, meaning 95 percent of respondents are providing off-campus services of some kind. The most popular strategy for increasing broadband access outside of school is deploying district-owned hotspots, with 70 percent of respondents taking this route–this compares to just 17 percent the prior year. Thirty percent work with their communities to provide Wi-Fi hotspots compared to 19 percent who did so in 2020, and 27 percent provide home access via free or subsidized programs to low-income families–more than double the prior year’s rate of 10 percent.

2. Concerns about digital equity have increased. Ninety-seven percent of respondents said their concerns about students’ home access to devices and the internet for remote learning purposes have increased since the pandemic. And for the first time since CoSN began this survey, respondents said digital equity is among their top concerns, ranking it as their third most pressing issue. The homework gap evolved into an “everything gap” for disadvantaged students.

3. Specific cybersecurity risks are generally underestimated even though cybersecurity and the privacy/security of student data are the top two technology priorities. For the second straight year, cybersecurity has ranked as the top priority for school district IT Leaders, with privacy and security of student data as number two. Yet when asked about perceived risks, the vast majority (84 percent) don’t rate any threats as high risk.

4. Districts are providing many new services. The overwhelming majority (97 percent) of districts provided new services specifically designed to address pandemic issues. Almost three-quarters (74 percent) conducted contact tracing, 67 percent provided cleaning services for devices, and 51 percent tested temperatures of students and faculty. While a majority (53 percent) provided remote counseling to address students’ SEL needs, less than a quarter (23 percent) provided counseling for teachers. About a third (34 percent) provided telehealth options and 29 percent offered COVID testing.

5. Parental engagement has changed during the pandemic. The overwhelming majority (95 percent) of districts have changed how they engage with parents during the pandemic, including increasing the frequency of communication, expanding the number of communication channels used, enhancing an existing parent portal, and providing more opportunities for two-way parent/teacher communication.

6. Department silos identified as a bigger challenge. IT Leaders have identified the same top three challenges for many years. Budget constraints consistently tops the list, followed by lack of access to PD and the existence of silos. This year, the existence of silos in the school system moved up in rank to the number two slot from number three. Silos make it difficult to work across functional areas. Yet breaking down silos is precisely what was needed during the pandemic in order to be flexible and effective.

7. A majority of districts have achieved FCC’s long-term bandwidth goals at school. For the first time, a majority (61 percent) of respondents reported access to 1 Gbps per 1,000 students in all their schools—up from just under 50 percent last year. The percentage of districts that haven’t achieved the FCC long-term goal for any of their schools has shrunk from 38 percent in 2019 to 21 percent this year. While these results indicate progress around at-school connectivity, it is important to keep in mind that these targets were set back in 2014.

8. Slow internet connections are the top challenges to remote teaching and learning. While families’ inability to access the internet was cited as a top challenge, it ranked third after problems with connections that were too slow for livestreaming (ranked number one) and connections that were too slow for multiple users (ranked second).T

9. Virtually all districts faced challenges with video conferencing. The overwhelming majority (94 percent) of districts faced challenges with video conferencing as they pivoted to remote teaching and learning during the pandemic. The top challenge, with 66 percent, was bandwidth. Security breaches followed with 43 percent and then privacy with 38 percent.

10. Districts struggled to provide remote support. Remote instruction required districts to also provide technical support to students and families. However, most IT departments (61 percent) were not prepared to do so. The strain this extra responsibility put on staffing was highlighted in many of the comments in the open-ended section of the survey.

11. IT leadership is overwhelmingly white and mostly male. IT leadership in K-12 is “whiter” than either K-12 educators or IT management in other industry segments, with 92 percent identifying as White. Men continue to be overrepresented, comprising a large majority (72 percent) of IT leaders.

Laura Ascione

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