How digital platforms can support the Early Years Sector
Watch back on the NMT Discussions webinar where our Chief Information Officer, John Ingham discusses the role technology plays in supporting and protecting the early years sector during COVID-19.
The move to working from home for the majority of us has meant that society has to embrace technology more to keep business and communications open. John Ingham, Chief Information Officer here at Connect Childcare was invited to the webinar to discuss the role technology plays in supporting and protecting the early years sector during COVID-19.
Using technology has undoubtedly helped the shift to remote working and kept business channels open for nursery settings, however, John will also highlight how digitisation is a double-edged sword. While it can improve transparency and accountability, users must be fully aware of all their software to combat cyber-crime.
Watch the recording:
Read the transcript:
Firstly, a quick intro into what you and your team have been doing since the Government announced the lockdown in March?
I’ve been at Connect for just over 3.5 years and I usually sit behind the scenes at the head office in Lancashire coordinating various teams to make sure our software continues improving and our hosting services are available for customers. The teams I’m responsible for are software development and testing, infrastructure, IT security and more recently our data team.
Outside of work, I’m the proud husband of an ICU anaesthetist at our local hospital with an 11yr son with ASD and 8 yr twin girls.
As with everyone, the lockdown has introduced some significant challenges to all areas of the business. Not just in how we work, but also how we live. Staff are having to cope with juggling their own childcare with keeping our services running too. Thankfully we have a good Business Continuity Plan. Many of our staff work from home 1 or 2 days each week so remote working isn’t new to them, we have invoked it fully on a couple of occasions due to snow etc but nothing like this.
Fortunately, we’ve just installed a new phone system and planned to do a Business Continuity rehearsal. We did the rehearsal as planned but then never returned to the office.
I’m pleased to say that our teams have adapted extremely well. Internally we still use video calls via Google Hangouts for meetings but our teams have been using 1-to-1 video and voice calls much more. We also use Google chat for 1 to 1 and group messaging and of course conventional emails too.
Very little has changed when it comes to supporting our customers. All of our teams are still contactable through the usual channels and our support hours are the same as pre lockdown.
What we have changed slightly is the strategy for our products. As soon as lockdown occurred and settings began closing or remaining open for small numbers of children, nurseries had high demand from their customers for content to keep children at home busy and support homeschooling.
Focusing on parents, we’ve developed a brand new ParentHub within our existing ParentZone App which includes a wealth of at-home activities for children. Things like activities, nutrition, recipes, useful links, mental health advice and BBC Bitesize content.
We’ve created a toolkit including things like email templates, social media posts and downloads to make it easy for nurseries to tell their parents about the new resources.
For nurseries, we are producing more regular content to support childcare providers. We have a new newsletter called Connecting Childcare which covers the latest things going on here at Connect and with our partners. Last week we featured Ceeda. We sponsor their About Early Years research project and they have recently built a COVID-portal to track the impact of the virus on Early Years Settings.
What technology concerns do you think nurseries could be facing during this pandemic?
Data security is always a concern for the nursery staff, but even more so now they will be accessing their systems from home and maybe even on their personal devices. Organised crime groups are targeting people who are working outside their normal processes as this is where easy to exploit gaps can be found as processes change, people cut corners or different members have to pick up less familiar tasks due to furloughing etc.
There are a few things that everyone can do to help secure data:
- Be on the lookout for phishing scams
Be careful what links you click in emails, using new apps, websites etc, especially relating to COVID 19. Only use links or apps from reliable sources that you are pretty sure are safe.
- Keep devices patched (tablets, laptops, desktop computers) and up to date
Update your devices regularly. Cybercriminals target people who do not update their software, especially devices which have just gone ‘out of support’.
- Use antivirus software
This can protect against malicious software that a human would not spot. Paid services are generally better, but trusted free versions are better than none at all.
- Keep devices physically secure
Either at home or in the workplace. Especially important when settings are closed or there are fewer people to see someone steal devices with data on them. These opportunistic crimes can be very damaging in both financial and reputation terms.
The second concern is how the use of technology will change with any post-lockdown restrictions. As well as concerns about things like reopening plans, additional cleaning, social distancing, PPE for staff etc, businesses will need to think about how they will use their devices differently or whether they need more. For example, if you use shared computers or tablets, will you want to clean them between users or change the process so that each person has a dedicated device? If you only have 1 device per room, you should minimise the use of the device to one dedicated person, always clean it between users or aim to make more devices available. Cleaning keyboards isn’t simple and often physical office space for administration tasks is limited, so keeping social distancing in place can be tricky.
We’ve seen more and more retail businesses stop using cash and cheques and move to payment platforms. Nurseries may move solely to online payment methods such as bank transfers, direct debit and card transactions.
Let’s discuss the software you have available. There’s Connect Childcare, iConnect and ParentZone. Can you describe how these are being used by your clients to help ease the strain that the virus has had on people’s lives and businesses?
There is never-ending pressure on staff with the responsibility for children and mountains of administration work. Our system does the laborious work and essentially frees up their time.
Nurseries relying on systems to keep in touch with their parents. There’s lots of ways you can do this with our system, i.e. sending bulk text messages, emails, or by communicating via ParentZone app. I briefly mentioned ParentHub before which gives parents ways of continuing their child development in partnership with their nursery.
With nurseries only caring for the children of key workers or vulnerable children, booking systems have been under extreme pressure. Our system allows bookings to be accurately controlled and any staff or child absences to be dealt with accordingly. It also helps manage staff rotas and gives good visibility of occupancy levels and ratios. Which is really critical at the moment.
Providers will continue to receive their free entitlement funding for the remainder of this term and summer term. Our system allocates and manages this funding so our customers know where they stand financially now and in the future.
Several nurseries are avoiding cash handling and turning to our fee collecting solutions such as taking payments via parentzone or allowing their parents to pay with our integrated direct debit solution which also reconciles their bank payments.
Even though we are in lockdown, nurseries are taking enquiries for new children starting in September, our system allows them to manage their enquiries and any waitlists.
We’re building more functionality every month and many new customers are finding lockdown is a good time to implement our software as they have a bit of extra time to concentrate on it.
You recently launched ParentHub, what has been the response to that from families?
The ParentZone app is still being used by almost 10,000 parents every single day, even during nursery closures
Lately they have been accessing the app for home learning resources and to keep in touch with their nursery by uploading observations from home.
We don’t have contact with the end-users because our customers are nurseries, but we have had new customers approaching us just for the ParentHub content and content providers asking to contribute to the platform so we can see the importance of it is growing.
Have there been any challenges you and your team have faced while making sure all clients have the necessary software available?
Not really, our Business Continuity Rehearsal went so well that we didn’t even need to go back into the office. We can access all systems securely from home and we keep in touch with our internal teams using voice and video calls. Our new phone system and online helpdesk allow us to support customers remotely. Customers can access their systems from home as long as they have a secure link, so we’ve proactively supported our customers with this.
The biggest challenge has been supporting our staff with their own childcare and homeschooling duties. We have allowed people to work flexibly so that they can look after their own children too. This means ensuring we have sufficient staff to cover our opening hours without a drop in the service we provide to the customer.
From a technology perspective, what will be the biggest challenges facing the EY sector post-pandemic?
We can’t predict what post-COVID-19 world will be like but it’s going to be difficult for the world to be exactly the way it was.
In most businesses we can expect to see an increase in remote working.
Now that employees are proving it to be a feasible option, it could be offered more in the future. A gradual unlocking might mean this is enforced with only critical staff returning to workplaces initially. Remote working enables companies to maintain social distancing by limiting the number of on-site employees at any given time. This is a challenge in the Early Years sector as nursery practitioners are going to be very limited by how much remote working they can do as they have to physically be there for the children.
Also, many companies relied on short-term IT fixes to keep operating during the crisis but more robust systems will be needed so they should be looking to shift their complex business processes online over the long term.
Hygiene and safety:
People will be more conscious of better hygiene practices. We could begin to see more touchless technology implemented to things like light switches, lift buttons, and taps to help curb the spread of bacteria. This could be a challenge for the Early Years sector as this type of technology can be expensive and as the sector is already financially challenged they may not be able to make use of these sorts of things. Nurseries will have the challenge of keeping employee tech tools—including PCs, tablets, monitors, keyboards and mice—germ-free without damaging them.