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Schools invest in, improve technology during pandemic

Mish Boyka

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Schools invest in, improve technology during pandemic

 

When the spread of COVID-19 forced nearly every school to switch to virtual instruction near the end of the 2019-2020 school year, educators scrambled to figure out how to teach students who weren’t sitting in front of them in classrooms.

The answer was more technology, so schools then had to scramble to ensure the necessary technology was in place to instruct students.

Districts and schools throughout Jefferson County purchased the laptops, Chromebooks, hot spots and cameras they needed. The schools also invested in computer software like Seesaw, Google Suite for Education Enterprise, JamBoard, Flipgrid and Canvas throughout the last year.

“The pandemic has certainly accelerated the purchasing of educational technology tools for schools,” said Declan FitzPatrick, Fox C-6 School District’s executive director of curriculum and instruction. “It has also highlighted several needs for school districts to address. There is a huge need for a centralized platform to manage teacher and student log-in information and to gather all the information that each software tool creates.

“On the parent and student side, there is a huge outcry for a single unified platform so students and their families don’t have to learn how to navigate multiple sites for every class. On the teacher and school side, there is a huge need for systems to collect and organize all of the information that results from students using software to help them learn.”

Northwest

The Northwest R-1 School District had completed its plan to provide a Chromebook to each of its 5,880 students at the start of the 2019-2020 school year, Director of Technology Cindy Horn said.

However, she said Northwest has since spent $123,000 to add outdoor internet access points outside of every school building, purchase 100 hot spots for students who needed a wireless connection at home, software programs, iPads and Swivl systems for teachers and webcams.

“When schools were forced to move to a virtual environment in March 2020, Northwest students already had devices assigned to them,” Horn said. “This allowed for a smoother transition to online learning. Our classrooms are equipped with Smart boards and audio systems. Teachers also have access to document and web cameras. This provides teachers with tools to facilitate learning for in-person, virtual and hybrid students.”

Fox

Fox C-6 School District secondary students – those in grades six through 12 – each have a Chromebook, and the ratio is 2-to-1 for the district’s students in kindergarten through fifth grade, said Luke Heitert, director of technology and information.

The district has 11,373 students.

Heitert said Fox has spent $1,453,122.95 on technology during the pandemic, purchasing 4,465 Chromebooks, 350 hotspots and educational software. The district also has created outdoor wireless access points at every school building to allow internet access from parking lots.

He said the district has used $1,275,489.95 of CARES Act funds to cover most of the expenses.

“These new tools allow students to work online and receive immediate feedback and continuously adjust levels of challenge in their work,” FitzPatrick said. “This means that schoolwork and practice can be precisely customized to exactly what the student needs to work on right now.”

De Soto

The De Soto School District has supplied each of its 2,631 students with a Chromebook this school year, after buying many devices after the end of the 2019-2020 school year, Superintendent Josh Isaacson said.

He said the district also purchased 675 hot spots to allow students without reliable internet access to get online for school work.

“The fact that rural areas in our state do not have access to the same internet services as other areas puts students at a disadvantage and we secured hotspots in order to work to bridge this inequality gap,” said Isaacson, who is president of the Jefferson County Superintendents Association. “We have been able to provide these hotspots to other districts in our county on several occasions to be able to assist them when they had to be out of school as well.

“There have been many struggles along the way, but all in all, in the middle of the pandemic and being able to be in school, everyone has done exceedingly well. Thankfully, our Board of Education had the foresight to allocate the needed technology resources for us to do what we have been able to do this year for our students.”

Dunklin

Each of the Dunklin R-5 School District’s 1,567 students has a Chromebook to use this school year after the district purchased an additional 600 devices, communications director Matt Lichtenstein said.

Lichtenstein said the district also bought 15 hot spots and a training program called Mobile Mind to help the staff learn how to provide digital instruction. He said the district spent $152,953 to upgrade its technology, and as of early March, Dunklin had only used $500 from CARES Act funds on technology but the reimbursement process is ongoing.

“Teachers continue to learn and evolve to service both virtual and in-person students,” Lichtenstein said.

Festus

The Festus R-6 School District can provide a Chromebook for every student in grades two through 12, and the ratio of students in kindergarten and first grade to devices is 2-to-1, said Kevin Pope, coordinator of communications and special projects.

The district has 3,150 students, and it has spent about $250,000 on technology during the pandemic, using $16,000 in CARES Act money so far, Pope said.

“Technology has greatly expanded access to education in times when students are unable to attend in person,” Pope said. “Massive amounts of information are available to students through the internet and online platforms. Opportunities for communication and collaboration have also been expanded by the use of the technology tools that are available to students. Through curriculum enhancements, teachers have incorporated many online learning opportunities into their lessons.”

Grandview

The Grandview R-2 School District expanded its supply of Chromebooks by 400 to allow for each of its 730 students to have one, Superintendent Matt Zoph said.

The district also purchased 303 hot spots and boosted its wi-fi capabilities to allow internet access inside and outside school buildings, spending $40,000 on technology, he said.

Zoph said the expenditures were mostly covered through CARES Act funds, and the district also used money from an AT&T gap grant to pay for 228 hot spots.

“I think having hot spots has helped some of our students but, being as rural as we are, has not helped them all,” Zoph said. “I believe upgrading wi-fi to outside areas of the campus has given students with lack of connectivity at home a place to go to get high speed internet.

“Our biggest adaptation was switching from our teacher-made curriculum to a complete virtual curriculum so that our on-campus students were being taught the same curriculum as our virtual students. It also allowed our teachers to not have to prepare a completely new curriculum.”

Hillsboro

Hillsboro R-3 School District’s 3,240 students each have a Chromebook after the district bought 1,030 devices, along with a Screencastify license, 500 hot spots, 240 webcams, 50 tripods, additional Zoom licenses, upgraded wireless access points and a grading software, said Melissa Hildebrand, assistant superintendent for curriculum, instruction and assessment

Hillsboro has spent $356,631.68 on technology upgrades and used $256,871 in CARES Act funds to offset some of the cost.

“At Hillsboro R-3, we have made significant strides in technological improvements,” Hildebrand said. “Not only do all of our students have a Chromebook, but we have been able to provide hot spots to families in our community who did not have internet access. Our teachers have been equipped with additional Chromebooks, web cameras and iPads to use as needed, while discovering online resources that otherwise might not have been made as readily available.”

Crystal City

The Crystal City School District purchased 110 Chromebooks so it could give devices to every student in grades two through 12, Superintendent Matt Holdinghausen said. The district has 509 students.

Crystal City also upgraded its bandwidth capacity and bought a new wireless network to support the increased demand for internet use. Holdinghausen said the district spent about $75,000, using some CARES Act money, to upgrade its technology.

“When this began, we did a survey of our staff and determined the needs of the district to deliver our curriculum virtually and in person,” Holdinghausen said. “We knew there would always be the possibility of having to go fully virtual, so we planned and developed the delivery of our education material with that in mind.”

Jefferson

In the Jefferson R-7 School District, each kindergarten and first-grade student has an iPad, and students in grades two through 12 each have a Chromebook, Superintendent Clint Johnston said.

The district has 1,049 students, including those in preschool.

Johnston said the district has purchased 350 Chromebooks to replace outdated devices. It also has bought document cameras, webcams and webcam stands, Swivl Cameras, five additional hot spots to go with the 20 the district already owned, Promethean boards and Smart TVs for classrooms.

He said Jefferson R-7 has spent $99,786.06 on technology upgrades, covering $84,317.53 of that cost with grants.

“Our teachers have done an amazing job taking our curriculum and delivering it to students both in person and virtually,” Johnston said. “They utilized current software and programs we had and integrated them through Seesaw, Google Classroom and Canvas. This allowed students to be able to go to each teacher’s virtual classroom to find what activities/assignments they were expected to complete. They have grown a lot more comfortable with videotaping themselves and lessons as well as having virtual meetings either through Google Meets or Zoom.”

St. Pius

St. Pius X High School’s 277 students each supply their own device for virtual learning, and the Festus Catholic school had already been using Google Workspace Suite for distance learning before the pandemic, technology director Kevin Halley said.

So, the school focused on upgrading teachers’ tools to assist in distance learning during the pandemic, spending almost $7,000 on software and various types of cameras to provide instruction, Halley said.

“Teachers were able to be more comfortable with these tools,” he said. “They have been around for a few years before this and they were used, but I don’t feel they were ever used to their full capabilities. Sometimes lessons were great, sometimes lessons failed, but teachers kept trying new things. Technology is not going anywhere, so teachers being able to model ‘life-learning’ will go a long way to showing students that new can be good. You just have to ‘try.’”

Windsor

The Windsor C-1 School District bought 1,715 Chromebooks for students for this school year, allowing the district to provide a device for every student in grades three through 12, said Jay Roussin, director of information technology.

The district has 3,082 students.

Roussin said the district also purchased 14 HP ProBook laptops for teachers, 13 hot spots, 140 webcams, 20 licenses for expanded Zoom use and implemented a web learning and communication platform called Seesaw for students in pre-kindergarten through second grade.

He said Windsor spent $497,937.02 on technology upgrades and received $348,348.58 from CARES Act funds and a Department of Elementary and Secondary Education grant to help offset the cost.

“Technology has provided for instructional opportunities otherwise unreachable for many in these times with quarantine, virtual and hybrid learning,” Roussin said.

Rockwood

The Rockwood School District increased the number of devices that could go home with students for the 2020-2021 school year and purchased iPads for its kindergarten and first-grade students to allow for more distance learning, Chief Information Officer Deb Ketring said.

The district, which has 20,160 students, began the school year with all students learning remotely. The district already had Chromebooks for all students by the end of the 2018-2019 school year, but only secondary students could take the devices home, Ketring said.

Ketring said when the pandemic started, all students could take the devices home, and for this school year, Rockwood bought 1,580 iPads, so all students in kindergarten and first grade would have one of those devices.

“It was determined that iPads provide a more user-friendly experience than Chromebooks for our K-1 students,” Ketring said.

Along with the iPads, Rockwood bought 1,492 hot spots to provide reliable internet access to students who need a better connection, 2,345 Zoom licenses, 260 snowball microphones for classrooms, 210 headsets for teachers, 100 webcams for teachers and 50 speakers with microphones for large areas. The district also expanded the Canvas learning system to all grade levels.

District officials said Rockwood has spent $536,869.90 on technology upgrades. It also has spent $37,489.92 per month on hot spot subscriptions.

Rockwood has been reimbursed $216,687.51 through CARES Act and grant funds for those expenses.

“Zoom allows our teachers and students to interact in real time,” Ketring said. “Teachers introduce new content, facilitate discussions and monitor student activity and participation in class through Zoom. They have been able to utilize breakout rooms to facilitate small group collaboration and discussion.”

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Vermont Health Connect had 10 data breaches last winter

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Vermont Health Connect had 10 data breaches last winter
Vermont Health Connect has set up a special enrollment period in response to the coronavirus outbreak. VHC photo

In mid-December, a Vermont Health Connect user was logging in when the names of two strangers popped up in the newly created account.

The individual, who was trying to sign up for health insurance, deleted the information that had suddenly appeared.

“It was super unsettling to think that someone is filing in my account with my information,” the person, whose name is redacted in records, wrote in a complaint to the Department of Vermont Health Access. “Just seems like the whole thing needs a big overhaul.”

It was one of 10 instances between November and February when Vermont Health Connect users reported logging to find someone else’s information on their account.

The data breaches included names of other applicants and, in some cases, their children’s names, birth dates, citizenship information, annual income, health care plans, and once, the last four digits of a Social Security number, according to nearly 900 pages of public records obtained by VTDigger. On Dec. 22, the department’s staff shut down the site to try to diagnose the problem.

While officials say the glitches have been resolved, it’s the most recent mishap for a system that has historically been plagued by security and technical issues. The breaches could be even more widespread: Administrators of Vermont Health Connect can’t tell if other, similar breaches went unreported.

“We don’t know what we don’t know,” said Jon Rajewski, a managing director at the cybersecurity response company Stroz Friedberg. Regardless of whether there are legal ramifications for the incidents, they should be taken “very seriously,” he said.

“If my data was being stored on a website that was personal, — maybe it contains names or my Social Security number, like my status of insurance… — I would expect that website to secure it and keep it safe,” he said.

“I wouldn’t want someone else to access my personal information.”

Andrea De La Bruere, executive director of the Agency of Human Services, called the data breaches “unfortunate.” But she downplayed the severity of the issues. Between November and December, 75,000 people visited the Vermont Health Connect website for a total of 330,000 page views, she said. The 10 incidents? “It’s a very uncommon thing to have happen,” she said.

De La Bruere said the issue was fixed on Feb. 17, and users had reported no similar problems since. The information that was shared was not protected health information, she added, and the breaches didn’t violate the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA.

“No matter what the law says technically, whether it’s HIPAA-related or just one’s personal information, it’s really concerning,” said Health Care Advocate Mike Fisher.

The timing of the issue is less than ideal, he added. Thousands of Vermonters will be logging into Vermont Health Connect in the coming weeks to take advantage of discounts granted by the American Rescue Plan. “It’s super important that people can access the system, and that it’s safe and secure,” Fisher said.

A ‘major issue

The issues first arose on Nov, 12, when at least two Vermonters logged in and found information about another user, according to records obtained by VTDigger.

Department of Vermont Health Access workers flagged it as a “major issue” for their boss, Kristine Fortier, a business application support specialist for the department.

Similar incidents also occurred on Nov. 17 and 18, and later on multiple days in December.

Department of Vermont Health Access staff members appeared alarmed at the issues, and IT staff escalated the tickets to “URGENT.”

“YIKES,” wrote a staff member Brittney Richardson. While the people affected were notified, the data breaches were never made public.

State workers pressed OptumInsights, a national health care tech company that hosts and manages Vermont Health Connect, for answers. The state has contracted with the company since 2014. It has paid about $11 million a year for the past four years for maintenance and operations, with more added in “discretionary funds.”

Optum appeared unable to figure out the glitch. “It is hard to find root cause of issue,” wrote Yogi Singh, service delivery manager for Optum on Dec. 10. Optum representatives referred comments on the issues to the state.

By Dec. 14, Grant Steffens, IT manager for the department, raised the alarm. “I’m concerned on the growing number of these reports,” he wrote in an email to Optum.

The company halted the creation of new accounts on Dec, 14, and shut down the site entirely on Dec, 22 to install a temporary fix. “It’s a very complex interplay of many many pieces of software on the back end,” said Darin Prail, agency director of digital services. The complexity made it challenging to identify the problem, and to fix it without introducing any new issues, he said.

In spite of the fixes, a caller reported a similar incident on Jan. 13.

On Feb. 8, a mother logged in to find that she could see her daughter’s information. When she logged into her daughter’s account, the insurance information had been replaced by her own.

“Very weird,” the mother wrote in an emailed complaint.

Optum completed a permanent fix on Feb. 17, according to Prail. Vermont Health Connect has not had a problem since, he said.

Prail said the state had reported the issues to the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services as required, and had undergone a regular audit in February that had no findings. The state “persistently pressured Optum to determine the root cause and correct the issue expeditiously but at the same time, cautiously, so as to not introduce additional issues/problems,” he wrote in an email to VTDigger.

“We take reported issues like this very seriously,” he said.

A history of glitches

The state’s health exchange has been replete with problems, including significant security issues and privacy violations, since it was built in 2012 at a cost of $200 million.

The state fired its first contractor, CGI Technology Systems, in 2014. A subcontractor, Exeter, went out of business in 2015. Optum took over for CGI, and continued to provide maintenance and tech support for the system.

Don Turner
Don Turner, right, then the House minority leader, speaks in 2016 about the need to fix the state’s glitch-ridden Vermont Health Connect website. With him are Phil Scott, left, then the lieutenant governor, and Sen. Joe Benning. Photo by Erin Mansfield/VTDigger

In 2018, when Vermont Health Connect was less than 6 years old, a report dubbed the exchange outdated and “obsolete.”

Officials reported similar privacy breaches in 2013, when Vermonters saw other people’s information.

An auditor’s report in 2016 found a slew of cybersecurity flaws, and officials raised concerns again during a  2018 email breach.

It wasn’t the first time that Vermont Health Connect users had been able to view other people’s personal information. Three times since October 2019, individuals had logged in to see another individual’s insurance documents. Prail attributed those incidents to human error, not to system glitch; a staff member uploaded documents to the wrong site, he said.

In spite of the issues, Prail said he and other state officials have been happy with Optum. After years of technical challenges with Vermont Health Connect, “Optum has really picked up the ball and improved it and been running it pretty well,” he said.

Glitches are inevitable, he added, and Optum has addressed them quickly. “They took a really difficult-to-manage site and made it work pretty well,” he said. “Optum is generally quite responsive to any issues we have.”

“I find any privacy breach to be concerning,” said Scott Carbee, chief information security officer for the state. He noted that the state uses “hundreds of software systems.” “While the scope of the breaches can be mitigated, true prevention is a difficult task,” he wrote in an email to VTDigger.

Optum spokesperson Gwen Moore Holliday referred comments to the state, but said the company was “honored” to work with Vermont Health Connect “to support the health care needs of Vermont residents.”

Prail said the Agency of Human Services had no plans to halt its contract with the company. “I don’t have a complaint about Optum,” he said. “They took a really difficult-to-manage site and made it work pretty well.”

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Health Care

Tags: data breaches, Optum, Vermont Health Connect

Katie Jickling

About Katie

Katie Jickling covers health care for VTDigger. She previously reported on Burlington city politics for Seven Days. She has freelanced and interned for half a dozen news organizations, including Vermont Public Radio, the Valley News, Northern Woodlands, Eating Well magazine and the Herald of Randolph. She is a graduate of Hamilton College and a native of Brookfield.