HCDE’s IT Services Division Builds Framework for Teleworking, Learning Success Ahead of Pandemic

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May 21, 2020 by HCDE Communications

On an ordinary workday at the end of January 2020, news came about a Harris County Department of Education employee’s family member being exposed to COVID-19. After quarantining, the person tested negative, but the virus had hit too close to home. HCDE’s IT Services Division team was already ahead of the curve to equip staff to work remotely.

Director Lowell Ballard, operations manager Chris Hoesel, applications manager Tim Davis, service desk manager Jaime Salinas and information security officer John Kracht began discussions as more cases of the virus showed up throughout the country. Working silently behind the scenes, the IT team and its staff planned the wraparound technology needed in the event staff couldn’t return to work after spring break.

Behind the scenes, division leader Ballard and his management staff knew they had already built the framework to empower employees and students to work and learn from home. Ballard worked on a pandemic planning committee in a leadership post in Virginia 14 years previous, so he was aware of the IT services needed to get through a potential pandemic. To prepare before spring break, all employee accounts were enabled to allow VPN access and support to telework. Microsoft Office 365 was launched the year before, and a bulk of divisions already had documents migrated to One Drive in the Cloud. IT staff and several other divisions had already begun using Microsoft Teams for meetings. Student accounts were created and were being tested. Teams classroom sites were being tested for students as well. Finally, all employees were given access to Adobe services. Adobe Sign was enabled for testing for a small group of HCDE leaders.

The next week, all hell broke loose as Texas and Harris County went into lockdown. Spring break was extended a week for staff, but IT staff kicked it into high gear.

“Like any disaster, you plan for it but you’re not sure it will happen,” said Ballard. “We are using the same platforms that Fortune 500 companies are using, so that gives us options and flexibility that may not have been available in the past.

Initially, the Service Desk was challenged with work hours without boundaries. Salinas recalled his team members fielding calls well into the evening to equip HCDE staff.

“Our staff members were working through their personal situations, so they had odd hours themselves,” he said. “Staff had their own children at home in addition to their students to take care of.”

Salinas ordered laptops which were already in high demand throughout the nation. To accommodate HCDE staff, laptops were taken from computer labs in the conference center. Service desk staff handed out approximately 80 laptops to enable staff to work from home.

Davis and his team worked with the Schools Division to move student accounts and Microsoft Teams for classroom use from testing into production.  They edited all HCDE forms on the portal to be fillable using Adobe Sign and created a central forms library.

Teachers were equipped to communicate with students. Now approximately 100 HCDE teachers and 650 students have access to Microsoft Teams collaboration software for use in their remote classrooms, mirroring the same software being used by HISD teachers.

Several weeks post spring break, demand seemed to slow as employees settled into the new norm of working from home.

“In the beginning, the call volume was extremely high with double the calls and now it has leveled off,” Salinas said.

IT Services moved from crisis mode to the more routine as management meetings shifted from once a day to twice a week. IT Services teams now meet three times a week.

Being prepared and working ahead of the curve is something IT personnel must do to help an organization thrive.

“It’s an iterative or incremental process,” said Hoesel. “You can’t do everything at once. We’ve been making changes over the last one-and-a-half years and it’s enabled us to help staff work at this level during the pandemic.

“Lowell had this vision for strategic change,” Hoesel said. “We used to think that everything is working, so why change. Now we’re going in the direction of where industry is moving.”

IT Services staff members continue to work through challenges and make plans. Here are some future initiatives:

• Upgraded phone system will allow employees to call using their work phone caller ID on their smart phone via an app.
“Effectively, their smart phone may be used like a work desk phone,” Ballard said. “A second phase is planned that allows calls to be sent/received using Microsoft Teams.

Connect online forms to systems and workflows.
“We won’t need to include paper documents floating around the workplace.” Davis said. “Moving away from paper, making forms fillable and being able to be signed is what made administrative processes keep functioning,” Ballard said.  “The next phase is connecting the data collected by online forms into integrated workflows and systems so that processes run faster and people don’t need to re-enter data collected from the forms into other systems.”

• Computer security during COVID-19 is heightened. A significant increase in  phishing attempts has occurred during the coronavirus. Kracht is moving forward with employee education initiatives; enhanced “multi-factor authentication” settings and coronavirus-related phishing prevention as threats increase.

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