Before COVID-19 came along, schools required certain features from their phone systems that had not changed for years.
They needed an automated attendant to answer every call and direct callers appropriately. They needed an absence mailbox for parents to report when their children were off sick. They used feature-rich phone in the office and basic handsets for other areas. Some schools also integrated their phone systems with the School Information Management System CRM or SIMS.
Primary school used between two and four telephone lines, usually traditional PSTN, with no direct dial-in (DDI) numbers. A typical phone system would be digital with up to 16 handsets, with wall-mounted handsets in classrooms and pagers used in emergencies.
Secondary schools would have four to six lines, usually ISDN, with some DDIs for key staff. Digital or VoIP handsets could reach up to 120, if not more.
Special needs schools would be a blend of the primary and secondary configurations with more focus on mobility options and hands-free calling.
In addition, all schools would also have had internet and web filtering services, sometimes provided by local council or council-approved organisations, as well as Wi-Fi.
When COVID-19 reared its ugly head in March last year, schools closed during lockdown with tasks for students being set on existing education platforms. Where schools were open to children of essential workers, the numbers on site were very low.
The crux came as schools began to prepare for re-opening in September. Not only did senior leadership teams (SLTs) and IT managers realise they needed more from their phone systems, Wi-Fi and internet connectivity, they had also missed the summer holiday window for deployment of any new solutions.
The main new requirement for a school phone system was flexibility. SLTs needed to be able to work from home and for teachers to be contactable while they were self-isolating. Teachers needed to contact students or their parents as part of their duty of care requirements and to record these calls to meet safeguarding regulations. Meanwhile, they needed to find ways of delivering virtual classrooms, assemblies and parents’ evenings.
Traditional phone systems do not provide the flexibility to work off site. Even diverting calls can cause issues and can tie up too many lines. However, teachers do not want to use their personal mobiles to call students or parents and number withheld calls often go unanswered.
Meanwhile, virtual assemblies were grinding to a halt as internet connectivity and Wi-Fi solutions were buckling under the pressure of the increased number of mobile devices being used together with more areas needing wireless coverage.
I sold multiple solutions to schools last year. These included on-premise phone systems with unified communications apps that enable staff to make and receive calls off site or while on the move on site.
Microsoft Teams was key too as it uses free schools licensing to offer remote teaching and learning tools, such as live video meetings/lessons for up to 49 people, while upgrading and integrating the Teams phone system app meets flexible telephony requirements.
Feature-rich desk handsets can still be used by both types of systems while softphone options are available too. Traditional needs, such as automated attendant, were also met by both these types of phone system.
I also sold many Wi-Fi solutions to schools where their existing equipment was too old to operate effectively or where schools have had to extend their wireless connectivity reach to accommodate socially-distanced year groups and to avoid dead spots.
Schools are very different places than they were a year ago and the pressures on staff, and students, continue into 2021. The technology that suited them before is struggling to keep up with the changing landscape of teaching amid a pandemic and one solution does not suit all.
Flexibility from school providers is therefore key too. If you want to talk to me about the solutions that may help your schools at this time and into the future, please do not hesitate to contact me.