When schools around the country shut down for the coronavirus, forcing districts to become remotely-run operations nearly overnight, at least one thing in the turmoil of a transition so monumental was guaranteed: IT help desks were going to get slammed.
Behind the scenes, as superintendents plot the big picture, as chief academic officers map out online curriculum and as teachers use new tech tools to reach students, the district employees manning help desks are playing the role of an unsung cast that have allowed the immediate shift to online learning to be possible at all.
And those help desks have been put to test. They’ve had to pivot from previously supporting district employees and staff to now becoming the first line of contact for just about every student and parent with a remote learning inquiry.
The calls and emails have been flooding in around the clock, according to interviews with district tech officials. How do I log in? How do I use this app? Where do I pick up a device? Sometimes the calls have nothing to do with technology or remote learning.
“There was one where a student forgot his clarinet at school and wanted to see what we could do,” said Michael Gurule, the program manager for Santa Fe Public Schools.
Although it varies, there seems to be a common formula for most districts and their help desks: call and email volume have increased by hundreds or thousands of inquiries; staff has been ramped way up to field that demand, in some cases doubling or tripling the number of people answering phones. To do that, districts pulled employees from other areas and in some cases had to work with vendors to expand the number of licenses for software used by help desk techs so that more people could take calls.
“While our staff is trying to work from home and keep projects going and deal with coronavirus, this is a whole other angle of support we did not plan for,” said Melanie Harris, chief information officer for the School District of Philadelphia."It is an unplanned human capital expense.”
Here’s a sampling of what some districts and their help desks are doing:
San Antonio Independent School District: Daily call volume escalated from 75 to 600
The nearly 49,000-student district currently has about 15 people on its help desk taking calls, said Ken Thompson, the chief information technology officer. Normally, it’s a four-person operation.
Daily call volume pre-pandemic: about 75 to 100. Post pandemic: up to 600.
“It’s still steady,” said Thompson, whose district started remote learning on March 30. “Not at the 500 to 600 call level. But in the range of 400 a day.”
Thompson beefed up the help desk during the second week of remote learning, when professional development for teachers and device distribution for students started. That provided a bit of time to train district field techs reassigned to phone duty and help transition the help desk to take calls from home.
“Shockingly, it went extremely well,” he said about the adjustment.
About one month into the new help desk operation, Thompson said things have been going good: “The whole team’s spirit has been extremely high. They know the difference they’re making.”
One inquiry fielded by the help desk that stands out: “when a teacher called to ask: ‘what is an LMS?’” he said. “That’s representative of the shift to online learning. But if you don’t know what an LMS is, you got me wondering what you’ve been doing all year.”
Denver Public Schools: Anticipating the ‘new normal’
When remote learning started for the DPS the first week of April, about 15 people at a time were manning phones for 10-hour shifts. However, the team available to answer calls throughout the day totaled around 25, which allowed the district to provide breaks for operators without losing a body on the phones and to offer rotating shifts to prevent burnout. Previously, the help desk was manned by seven people.
“With this remote learning, we’ve gone from a service desk that supports 15,000 employees to a service desk that supports 90,00 chidlren and the families of those students,” said Jason Rand, director of field services for the department of technology for the 93,000-student district.
The DPS experienced a huge spike in calls. On the first day of remote learning, for example, the help desk fielded 358 total. In the month prior to e-learning, the daily average was 91.
The help desk expanded to a “two-tier” system to help route calls more effectively. Tier 1 is the equivalent of a remote student learning tech line, said Rand, while the second tier is dedicated to teachers and staff calling about device management, audio visual problems, or questions about the LMS and Google Classroom.
Rand said he enlisted members of his field services team that normally provide schools with on-site support to fill in on the phones. But the number of reps taking calls was limited by licenses the district had for voice software used by the help desk. Rand said he had to work with a vendor to increase that number, and in late April was juggling whether he’d need more.
“We’re getting hit with this need that I don’t think will last,” he said. “It’s really tough to anticipate what the new normal is going to be until we’ve leveled off.”
There’s also an element of “self care” being put into play with help desk workers, said Katie Maestas, who manages the service desk and training team.
“If people were on the phones yesterday, we try not to put them on the phones the next day to avoid having them do two 10-hour phone shifts back to back,” she said. “It’s tough to take calls for that long.”
Santa Fe Public Schools: ‘It was a little crazy’
The 13,500-student district pulled staff from the team that monitors its wired and wireless networks to assist on the help desk.
Call volume started increasing in mid-March when the district was on spring break and ballooned in the following two-week stretch when professional development and then online instruction started.
On a typical day in January, the help desk handled about 130 calls between two staffers. At peak volume during coronavirus closures, the district’s help desk processed more than 1,400 calls each of those first two weeks following spring break.
“It was a little crazy,” said Gurule, the district’s program manager.
After receiving a crush of calls initially, Gurule said things had scaled back to near-normal levels by mid-April, and some of the added manpower was being redirected back to network duties, paving the way for the eventual shifting back to a 2-to-3 person help desk.
Some common calls still coming in: student Chromebooks running slow after being inundated with apps and extensions, and teachers asking about VPN, video conferencing, apps, and other digital resources. District staff were also given laptops, and there was a period where the help desk was also dealing with those equipment requests and basic troubleshooting issues.
Overall, Gurule said call volume had mostly “normalized,” and the issues the help desk was dealing with now were generally “easy fixes.”
“I hope I’m not jinxing it by saying that,” he said.
Gurule gives a lot of credit for the steady decrease in call volume to district principals, who put together Google spreadsheets and conducted informal interviews with families of students who didn’t log into instruction during the first days of remote learning. Part of those inquiries led the district to identify the need for 525 mobile WiFi hotspots. The Google spreadsheets also gave the help desk insight into “daily issues we were going to be up against,” said Gurule.
“We were able to monitor in real time what was coming in,” he said. “We could see when principals were making the contact and getting a general idea for what was happening in each school. It better prepared us to know what was coming forward to the help desk.”
Miami-Dade County Public Schools: ‘The voice of calmness’
The third largest school district in the country put in place an expanded help desk ready within days of the district announcing closures. It evolved quickly from there.
“We went from 12 people in a crowded room to then a bigger room we had to wire overnight, so we could have social distancing between operators. Now it’s a virtual helpline,” said Marie Izquierdo, chief academic officer for Miami-Dade.
Izquierdo estimates that about 30 operators are taking calls between two shifts. The extra bodies came via instructional technology specialists and academic content specialists.
On the first day of distance learning, the district fielded 800 calls. Volume remained steady through at least early April.
“We knew we were going to have to provide a boatload of support,” said Izquierdo, “not only to families but to teachers and students,”
And it’s not just about answering calls dealing with apps or logging in, she said: “They are the voice of calmness that people need on the other line during a crazy time. The operators have gone above and beyond.”
The School District of Philadelphia: Up until 3 a.m. answering emails
CIO Melanie Harris said the 200,000-student district ramped up its help desk and shifted it to work remotely in a matter of days.
With up to 15 people taking calls, the district relied on members of its curriculum department, community engagement staff and multilingual department for extra call operators. Phone techs are handling calls in up to nine different languages, Harris said.
Call and email volume were heavy at first: about 3,600 calls and another 2,000 emails in the initial weeks of school closures.
Bob Westall, deputy chief information officer, described handling that amount of calls as a “huge lift,” and noted staff have stayed up until “2 or 3 in the morning answering” emails.
Once schools closed mid-March, the help desk was swarmed with requests from parents and students, and then teachers were given equipment to take home and started asking their own questions. “That just blew up everything,” said Westall.
After the first couple of weeks, volume dropped off significantly. But since the district didn’t start offering online learning until late April, and introducing new materials until May, another deluge of help desk requests was expected, Harris said.
“The questions are going to grow and keep shifting depending on what phase we’re in with our teachers and parents. It went from asking about paper packets and food distribution to needing access to a computer and Internet,” Harris said. “Now, it’s ''I’ve heard about Google Classroom, and I’ve taken professional development but still have questions about how to set it up and deliver instruction.’”
- And plans for the help desk are still evolving as the situation progresses: “We haven’t solidified what we’re going to do past this week,” Harris said. “The help desk plan is being built while the plane is already flying.”
A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.