CORONAVIRUS

Calls inundate help desks as online learning surges

Districts add hours, translators to help meet IT demands

Jennifer McGowan, a student-and-family advocate at North Central Junior High School, looks for a student's computer Mond
Jennifer McGowan, a student-and-family advocate at North Central Junior High School, looks for a student’s computer Monday at the Iowa City Community School District offices in Iowa City. The district’s Information Technology Help Desk has had to get creative in order to fix students’ laptops during the pandemic, so a drop-off station was created for families to use if they need tech support. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
/

School district information technology departments, facing a surge of requests for help as an unprecedented number of students learn online during the coronavirus pandemic, are having to evolve the way they provide support services.

“We’re used to going out to a classroom, talking to a teacher face-to-face, and solving problems happening right in front of us,” said Jeff Lucas, Cedar Rapids schools IT manager.

“This year, it’s all going to happen virtually or over the phone. It will be an adjustment to understand some of the new challenges teachers are facing as well as families.”

The Cedar Rapids Community School District is going one-to-one on technology for the first time this year, with over 16,000 devices distributed to students enrolled in the online or hybrid learning option.

Craig Barnum, executive director of digital literacy for Cedar Rapids schools, expects the IT Help Desk’s call volume to increase dramatically.

During a normal school year, service requests would be sent by staff on a student’s behalf. Now, families will be reaching out to the Help Desk as they manage learning from home.

The Help Desk has six technicians to answer calls and five technicians in the buildings.

“When you’re coming at a very difficult set of circumstances and a deeply held personal belief this is the right work, you tend to get it done,” Barnum said. “That’s the spirit of our team.”

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

The Cedar Rapids schools Help Desk is offering extended phone support hours from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Thursday, and opening it up to families. Additionally, the Help Desk is open 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. Friday. Families can call the Help Desk or access support services by visiting https://tinyurl.com/crschoolstechhelp.

Internet access is a concern for many Cedar Rapids families, in large part due to the derecho that knocked out power and internet for weeks. Some families still do not have internet service restored, Barnum said.

“As a school district with almost half our kids learning remotely to start the year, that’s a problem,” Barnum said.

An ImOn grant made possible by the CARES Act is providing free internet for up to 1,500 families. Families who qualify for the grant will be contacted by the Cedar Rapids Community School District.

In addition, the district has distributed about 2,300 hot spots.

Iowa City Help Desk open to families

The Iowa City Community School District Help Desk last week received over 2,100 support requests. Typically, it tries to keep support requests below 100.

“We knew our support demand would surge at the start of this week, but we ended up seeing a surge beyond what we expected,” said Adam Kurth, director of technology and innovation.

Most requests are for help with device repair, account login, questions about how to access online classes and home internet issues, Kurth said.

Iowa City schools have received 885 requests from families for home internet, which includes either a hot spot or getting internet service at the home. Another 60 hot spots were requested in a 24-hour period last week.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

While the department is trying to answer questions in the order they come in, Kurth said the support team is prioritizing jobs that prevent students or staff from accessing classes.

The Iowa City schools IT department has 25 employees, but only nine serve on the client services side, Kurth said.

The district considered hiring temporary staff, but Kurth said so much of the work is “context specific” that bringing in temporary employees would be challenging.

The Help Desk has become the first point of contact for a lot of families starting the school year, and in Iowa City the staff has been getting many calls from families with language barriers.

The district’s language line service allows Help Desk technicians to bring a live translator into the conversation.

Kurth said schools are providing translated documents for families explaining how to log on to classes, but in some cases families don’t know how to access the documents.

“We’ve seen a demand for our services beyond what we expected,” Kurth said. “A lot of it is drive-by questions that in an in-person class would be directed to the teacher or building office.”

Comments: (319) 398-8411; grace.king@thegazette.com

Support our coverage

Our most important Coronavirus coverage is free to the public.

If you believe local news is essential, especially during this crisis, please donate. Your contribution will support news resources to cover the impact of the pandemic on our local communities.

All donations are tax-deductible.

Support our coverage

Our most important Coronavirus coverage is free to the public.

If you believe local news is essential, especially during this crisis, please donate. Your contribution will support news resources to cover the impact of the pandemic on our local communities.

All donations are tax-deductible.