COVID Aid Gives Schools a Chance To Improve Digital Operations, but Time...

Opinion | School Infrastructure

COVID Aid Gives Schools a Chance To Improve Digital Operations, but Time Is Running Out

By Erin Covington     Jun 22, 2022

COVID Aid Gives Schools a Chance To Improve Digital Operations, but Time Is Running Out

On a recent visit to a school district, I was startled to find a procurement office with folding tables stacked with hundreds of paper purchasing orders that needed to be manually reviewed and approved.

What major industry still operates like that? The answer, unfortunately, is too many schools.

With annual expenditures of more than $750 billion, American public schools have complicated operations—from financial workflow to human resources to business analytics, and too many rely on analog processes in a digital world.

Luckily, the path to modernization became much easier, thanks to an unprecedented $190 billion federal stimulus package—the equivalent of $3,500 for every American schoolchild— approved by Congress during the pandemic. The Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER) was approved in three packages in 2020 and 2021.

There are few official guidelines on how the ESSER funding can be used, which has led to questions about how the dollars are being spent and accounted for. But there is a strict deadline: Schools must tap into ESSER no later than September 2024, which means the race is on for schools to find ways to use the money before they lose it.

While investments that improve student outcomes should be a top priority, school districts should also earmark some of the ESSER windfall for tech updates that will streamline their processes, improve ongoing efficiency and effectiveness, and drive cost-savings over the long run.

School finance workflows are a good place to start. Often, if teachers need 10 boxes of pencils, they must physically write the order on a paper form that requires anywhere from three to six signatures before being sent to a central office, and then ultimately to a vendor.

Modern procurement systems can streamline that process, creating greater transparency, reducing errors and speeding up the time to get school supplies into the hands that need them. While many larger school systems have taken steps towards automating procurement, smaller and more cash-strapped school systems generally have not.

Another area that can use a tech assist is human resources. Currently, HR departments spend an inordinate amount of time credentialing their teachers—getting paperwork in order before teachers set foot in the classroom to verify and document their credentials. At a time when schools are desperate to find qualified teachers to fill classrooms, this added paperwork delay is like rubbing salt in the wound.

Fortunately, the market has developed some promising solutions around credentialing that leverage blockchain technology. Capturing credential information in an immutable, blockchain-based form makes credential information more “portable” and easily shared among different institutions. These digital wallet solutions can streamline the credentialing process, which will get teachers in the door faster and help alleviate the current labor crunch while maintaining key privacy standards.

Schools should also invest in analytics tools. In many cases, schools are sitting on valuable data about their students and their operations, but they have no way of effectively extracting it and analyzing it to gather insights that can help make better decisions.

A variety of business analytics tools are remarkably user friendly and allow any end user—not just those who are tech savvy—to access live, up-to-date data and then slice and dice it any way they want depending on what kind of questions they need answers to in order to drive better outcomes. Want to learn more about the impact of attendance on test scores or the intersection of discipline and mental health? There are some tools that can analyze patterns that support school- and district-based staff in developing a deeper, more holistic understanding of how students are doing.

While upgrading financial and operational workflows and processes, schools might also want to take a hard look at the security of their entire IT function. In the spring of 2020, as the pandemic prompted widespread school closures, most districts scrambled to move online, stitching together whatever technologies they could to make the transition.

The big shift left many districts vulnerable to hackers, and one result has been a surge in ransomware attacks against school districts, including one that affected the websites of 5,000 schools.

Now is the time for schools and districts to pause, take a breath and revisit their IT infrastructure and turn what might be a technology patchwork into a secure and stable foundation for the school.

A quick word of warning. While there are countless tech upgrades that can deliver serious bang for buck, there are also potential pitfalls that schools should steer clear of when looking for ways to spend their ESSER funds. New technologies are popping up by the dozen as a result of the pandemic and may not be properly vetted for bugs or data privacy controls due to the quick pace of development. It’s best to stick with tried and true tech solutions with a solid track record of delivering value.

The beauty of using ESSER funds to give a few thoughtfully considered areas and processes a tech makeover, is that it doesn’t just deliver benefits in the short term—it frees up dollars that can be used on a recurring basis for academics.

At a moment when there’s a massive amount of money available to schools, some of the dollars should be spent on tech to redesign operations and wring out any inefficiencies. Schools owe it to their students and staff to invest in technologies that streamline processes, cut overhead and identify opportunities that secure their ability to carry out their core mission more effectively.

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