With more than 3,000 cases of the new coronavirus confirmed, Italy has announced that it will be shutting all schools for 10 days, to slow the spread of the disease. With cases beginning to increase in the UK, the possibility of similar action being taken here is also increasing.

Most students, teachers and lecturers are currently working on business as usual, but behind the scenes, admin staff are frantically devising plans for remote learning. As the spread of the coronavirus cannot be easily predicted, institutions need to be prepared to continue the working day from home at a moment’s notice. The difficulties of such an endeavour are more complex than you might expect.

An Unexpected Break:

In the event of mass school closure, few primary and secondary schools have the infrastructure to support remote learning. This is less of a worry for Higher Education, as many universities already have lecture streaming and recording facilities in place. They often also use virtual learning sites such as Moodle. Lots of University students already use their personal devices to access work, so while closures wouldn’t be ideal, they’d be manageable.

For schools, closures are much more likely to be an issue. Setting up a secure way to share lessons and resources online takes time. It often also takes money. For schools and their increasingly tighter budget, bespoke software and quick fixes are far out of reach. Various free or cheap file sharing sites such as SharePoint, Google Drive and Dropbox can make sending resources to students possible, but returning work and grades can easily become a messy affair.

Even if personal data is transferred between staff and students in a secure manner, it’s very difficult to control where it goes next. Most services offer the ability to download files onto your device, and personal devices are under far less scrutiny than those owned by schools and universities. SARS-Cov2 (the virus causing the disease), is not the only virus that threatens institutions. Should a teacher have a computer virus on their device, the data of their students could be compromised. Does this mean that schools need to provide malware protection for their employees? It’s another cost and another worry to add to the list.

Finding a Way for Face Time:

Assuming schools can find a secure solution to send work home, textbooks and tests aren’t a patch on a good teacher. File sharing can keep children learning long division at home, but what about ‘W plane transformations’ in A level Further Maths?

Many schools are trying to find a solution meaning teachers can still run lessons for their pupils. However, with little preparation time, schools are turning to use of personal accounts on media like WhatsApp and Skype. Anyone who has had any involvement in education, knows that this rings warning bells. Sharing personal accounts poses significant safeguarding risks. Regulating a private video call between staff and students is nigh on impossible. It would be the responsibility of the individual to record and report any issues, and it’s far too easy to say “I forgot to record the meeting”. Regardless of the safeguarding issues, should your call be recorded by the application you use, your personal data is being held by yet another data processor.

Increased Ratios. Increased Risk:

Should schools and universities remain open, Covid-19 could still cause problems. The Prime Minister has announced that relaxing rules on class sizes could be used to combat staff absences, should the virus take hold. While this could reduce issues with childcare and education, it’s likely to increase pressure on staff. If Students are moving class, their data is moving too. Teachers will not only be working under the increased pressure of cramped classrooms, but will be responsible for the safeguarding of more personal data than usual, and all of this whilst also being more stressed than usual. These are the ideal conditions for a serious data breach. Just working in a different classroom poses risks. When all this is over, no one will be completely sure where all the student and staff records have ended up.

A Necessary Compromise:

Every school, college and university across the country is desperately trying to find a balance. A situation where safeguarding is still prioritised, data protection is ensured, and students can still receive the quality of education they deserve. There is no simple answer, and there will be much relief when the crisis has passed.

For now, we will be closely watching the situation as it unfolds. Preparation is key, and according to Boris Johnson, a lathering of soap and singing Happy Birthday twice over, will save us all.