Image: iStock/Maria Symchych-Navrotska

Students and educators, tablets and smartphones poised, are in the midst of an uncertain crossroad: Without a fall 2020 US-wide edict for schools, confusion abounds. How and if a state adopted CDC and WHO safety guidelines is impactful. For example, in Georgia, people are “strongly encouraged” to wear masks, but not required. Some Georgia schools opened for traditional learning, but became plagued with shuttering and reopening; a Cherokee County elementary and two high schools, which opened earlier this month, closed due to the pandemic. This pattern is likely to be repeated across the US, with schools cautiously opening, but with a proverbial foot-out-the-door caveat to return to remote learning.

The pressure of the return and how it will be managed lays heavily on the shoulders of administrators, who must consider the counsel of educators and parents, while assessing the coronavirus’ path and trajectory. The CDC issued detailed and thoughtful ways to operate schools, yet the verbiage is vague enough to encompass online, in-school or hybrid classrooms. And the generalities, which include preventive behaviors and appropriate hygiene and social distancing, are logical, given the unpredictability and highly contagious nature of COVID-19.

However classes will actually be taught (teachers are among the most vocal advocates of remote learning), students need technology at home. A Deloitte study found 66% of parents were anxious about sending their kids to school because of the coronavirus. A recent Healthline study revealed that only 10% of American parents currently feel comfortable sending their kids back to school (because of COVID-19).

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We asked experts to weigh in on how to make this inevitable transition smooth and safe.

New rules. The new school year is a great opportunity “to implement updated, clear policies around responsible tech use as students’ time spent online increases,” said Hengjie Wang, CEO and co-founder at Kami, developers of educational tech applications.

Sunil Gunderia, chief strategy officer of Age of Learning, added: “Parents need to make the wording of the rules memorable, using brief, concise, easy-to-recall wording. Position rules as preventative and protective, not pejorative: no one is in trouble.”

Gunderia continued: “Tech safety rules should relate to things familiar to kids: We wear bike helmets to keep us safe; we keep our passwords secret for the same reason. Frame rules as ‘do’s’ rather than ‘don’ts.’ Say ‘Do keep your personal information to yourself’ rather than ‘Don’t share it.’ Involve kids in creating and naming the rules as much as possible.”

Safety practices. “Teach students early on the importance of safety practices–strong passwords and logging-out before shutting off the device, building digital literacy,” Wang said.

Start young. Cybersecurity literacy is an important skill set, even for the youngest school children, said Alex Heid, SecurityScorecard’s chief research officer. Heid recommended: “A great comic book series about cybersecurity from Gary Berman, “The CyberHero Adventures: Defenders of the Digital Universe” which depicts real-life hacking stories in cartoon form” and designed for readers as young as 5-years-old.

“They should learn about online safety when they begin to engage with digital media, shortly after they learn to read.” Heid added, “The first lesson about safety in the digital world is the same rule about venturing out into the physical world—’Don’t talk to strangers.'”

“Tell them they can only play games that mommy and daddy said are OK,” said James McQuiggan, security awareness advocate with KnowBe4. When they’re in K-2nd, start telling them to never share personal information online or send photos to anyone. For 3rd to 5th graders McQuiggan said to tell them to “Make sure to disable your GPS settings on your phone for images.” Remind middle-schoolers that online friends are not the same as real friends and never start a chat with someone you don’t know.

Free pass. Chloé Messdaghi, vice president of strategy, Point3 Security, discussed the importance of passwords. “Three of five children have internet access at home, and kids between 8-18 years of age spend 45 hours or more on devices. We taught kids ‘stranger danger.'” Apply this to security. Tell them not to open emails outside of their network, or from a name they don’t recognize. She said, “We’ve seen attackers using kids to get to a parent or to enter the school’s network.” Teach younger kids that passwords are “magical” and are protection from bad or dangerous strangers. If your child is younger than middle-school age, parents should help generate passwords and sign their child into the home computer. Messdaghi added. Reach “out to the school district and ask how they protect students’ safety online.”

Consider refurbished tech. Some parents feel school-provided tablets provided are adequate. Toni Sottak, managing director of Wired Island, recommended, “Purchasing refurbished electronics is safe and cost-effective.” Sottak said parents can get a refurbished MacBook Air with a 12-month warranty, for less than $500.

Set parental controls advised Ron Culler, senior director of technology and solutions at ADT Cybersecurity. “Parental controls make sure your kids are consuming age-appropriate content [and] sticking to educational sites during school hours.”

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Image: iStock/Maria Symchych-Navrotska