March 17, 2021
Providing Secure Remote Access for Students
Schools have taken different paths to provide students with remote learning connectivity, and each comes with its own security considerations.
Before the coronavirus pandemic began a little over a year ago, educational leaders’ chief objectives for home connectivity were to establish a way to provide equal opportunities to students, allow them to complete their homework and participate in “flipped” learning models that require online access after school hours.
Fast-forward to today: Home connectivity has become essential for simply delivering instruction to students, many of whom are still learning in either remote or hybrid environments. While there are some encouraging signs that many students will be returning to their physical classroom spaces in the relatively near future, schools across the country will likely seek paths to keep students connected from home even after the end of the pandemic. That will require continued attention to security issues.
Paths to Home Connectivity
Current regulations do not allow schools to use federal E-rate funding to provide students with home internet. Even if districts want to simply extend their existing wireless networks beyond their school walls, they cannot do so if they purchased that broadband connectivity with E-rate funds. There is some hope that this could change, with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) issuing a request for comments on a rule that would reverse this prohibition. However, it’s not guaranteed that this change will pass.
Fortunately, COVID-19 stimulus funding through legislation such as the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act is more flexible, and a number of schools have used these funds to find alternate paths to providing student connectivity. The simplest option, when practical, is for students to use their existing home Wi-Fi connections to engage in remote learning and connect to district resources. For homes without internet access, a number of districts have deployed mobile hotspots to help students connect. Finally, some districts have looked at dedicated 4G LTE connectivity. While this is a better fit in areas with flat terrain where signals are less likely to be disrupted, some districts have found ways to bring signals closer to students’ homes. In some regions, schools have parked connected school buses in different neighborhoods at set times to give students predictable access to online resources.
A number of schools have supported learning primarily by offering students access to third-party resources that are hosted in the public cloud. In these instances, students aren’t touching the district’s IT network. Still, even when students aren’t interacting with district resources, there may be security and compliance concerns to consider. Many districts have opted for specific wireless connectivity hotspots that comply with the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA).
When students are remotely connecting directly to a district’s IT network — whether through home internet, district-supplied broadband or some other form of connectivity — it raises additional security concerns. Districts have the option of allowing certain devices to automatically authenticate to their networks. However, this can be a somewhat risky practice, especially for schools that allow students to connect via their own devices (as opposed to district-owned devices). Typically, it is more secure to require an additional authentication factor, such as a password.
The events of the past year have shown just how important it is for students to be able to access online educational resources from home. However, school districts must find ways to provide this connectivity while protecting both students and their own IT networks.