Tips and tricks to manage your kid’s school-issued computer

By Caroline Knorr

School-issued devices let your kid keep learning while their school is going remote or offering a hybrid of online and in-person instruction. Some schools were handing out computers long before the pandemic — either to help students manage homework when they didn’t have a device of their own or to expand tech-based learning. The lessons we’ve learned from these experiences can help parents understand what to expect from these devices and how best to manage them now, from discussing their use with your kid to keeping the devices safe to monitoring ever-increasing screen time.

Get organized

The beginning of every school year feels chaotic, but this year is off the charts. Your school-issued device is just one more thing to keep track of! These resources can help you get organized by keeping the necessary information handy and establishing ground rules for using the device.

Student Digital Learning Agreement. Start the year off on the same page as your kid with an agreement about how to care for the device, plus online learning rules, expectations, and consequences. This is a contract that lays out your kid’s responsibilities and goals — as well as yours — to set your whole family up for success. You can customize it to your needs. For K–5 students, use the Digital Learning PledgeDownload here.

The Cheat Sheet. This customizable document has spots for all your kid’s school info, like teacher name and contact, how to turn in assignments, and whatever else you need to have available at a glance — including a place to note any technical difficulties you or your kid is having with their device. Print it or create your own version, fill it out, review it with your kid, and display it prominently — you can print a fresh one every week if that’s helpful. Download now

Device Guide for Families. This document is designed for schools to fill out and give to parents along with their school-issued devices. But it can also serve caregivers as a guide for what kinds of questions to ask teachers or administrators about devices. Feel free to forward it to your school if you think they could benefit from it. Download now.

Understand your school’s device program

Every school manages school-issued devices a little differently. But the computer should always come with some basic information, like what kind of device it is, what kind of software is on it, and what your kid can do on it. If you’re unclear about anything, ask the principal or tech coordinator! Here are a few basics:

The computer. While some districts use Windows PCs or MacBooks, Google Chromebooks are popular because they’re inexpensive (they save costs by using the cloud instead of installed hardware and software). They also work well with Google Classroom, which many schools use to organize assignments and communicate with students. Here’s what else you need to know:

  • Kids may be able to work offline for things like writing reports, filling in worksheets, and reading downloaded material, but they’ll need to be connected to Wi-Fi in order to access assignments, email, video chat, etc. If you don’t have Wi-Fi or it’s unreliable, contact the school immediately and check these resources.
  • Your kid will get their own school account and an individual log-in for their device; they should never share their password with anyone except you. Discuss how to choose strong passwords and how to keep them safe.

The software. Schools with experience handing out devices to students should have a well-thought-through plan for how devices will be used for class meetings, lessons, and homework. But schools that are scrambling to adapt to remote learning may still be figuring out exactly which tools they’re using and how they’re using them. Some will assign different apps and sites for your kid to use; some will use an entire curriculum that follows a specific sequence for, say, language arts or math class. Either way, all the software your kid will need (including Zoom and/or other programs required for class video chats) should come preloaded on the device. Here’s what else you need to know:

  • It’s perfectly reasonable to ask which apps are on the device, how they were selected, and what the learning purpose is. There’s a huge range of educational apps, websites, and games available, and teachers may use a variety of ways to find the ones that will really benefit kids’ learning. Some teachers have a lot of choices when selecting software; some teachers must use a particular platform.
  • Parents and caregivers usually get a special log-in to whichever classroom management tool schools are using (like Google Classroom) for things like checking grades and school communications. You can do this on your kid’s device or on your phone or computer.

The expectations

The device should be used for schoolwork only, if possible. It’s technically school property that your kid is borrowing — like a very expensive library book. Also, if your kid uses it specifically for school, you’ll be able to keep track of the time they’re spending on homework vs. other screen activities, so you can make sure they’re staying focused. If you have another device at home, your kid should use that one for games and entertainment. Here’s what else you need to know:

  • An administrator usually disables download capabilities so nothing can be installed (such as games) except the learning tools.
  • Your kid will still be able to browse the internet, play games, chat and use social media on the device’s web browser.
  • You probably won’t be able to install parental controls on a school-issued device, but you can ask your kid’s teacher or tech coordinator if any tools, like SafeSearch, are already set up.

Student privacy

You should receive a student privacy policy from your school that covers things like what data the computer tracks (and why), what the school does with that information, and how long they store it. (Learn more about the Common Sense Privacy Program.) Here are two key student privacy areas to learn more about:

  • Educational apps. Learning apps can track things like when an app is accessed, how long the user spends on it, and what they do (what they click on, how many questions they get right and wrong — stuff like that). That information may be shared so the teacher can determine how a student is performing. Sometimes schools agree to share this kind of data (which is anonymized) with the app developer so the developer can make improvements to the product. But it should not be shared with third parties. Ask the school whether they vet the privacy policies of the apps they assign to make sure they’re not over-collecting data.
  • Device tracking. The school may add software and hardware tracking to the device itself to determine what it accesses, including the websites your kid visits, what software your kid is using, any downloads (including photos), and even the device’s location (schools use it to reclaim devices). Some schools even use key-logging programs to identify potential problems (for example, if a student researches “suicide” or “weapons”).

In all cases, any information that’s collected should be for educational purposes, and companies shouldn’t be able to use or make money from student data. If you have any concerns about your student’s privacy on their device, ask your school’s administrator.

Time management

Although the device belongs to the school, you’re still in charge. Kids will be on screens a lot this year — and that’s mostly OK. But you’ll still want to make sure your family is getting a healthy balance of online and offline activities for everyone’s mental and physical well-being. Establish screen-free times, like dinnertime, and screen-free zones, like the bedroom. Set a device cutoff time at night, because getting enough sleep is really critical for kids. And if you think your kids are doing more than homework on their devices, you can discuss the downsides of multitasking and your expectations around what the school device is being used for. If you’re still struggling, bring your concerns to the school — you can talk to individual teachers, administrators, or other parents to find solutions.

  • If you need support in managing what your kid can access, such as website blockers and other content filters, as well as in managing how much time they’re spending, your best bet is to use screen-limit settings that apply to your entire home network. Most internet service providers offer them (some charge a fee).
  • Ask the teacher about how much time per day your kid is expected to be on the device. There will probably be a lot of offline work, such as reading, writing, and other activities teachers assign to mix up the day.
  • Not all kids will take to online learning. If yours is one of those kids for whom remote learning is unsuitable, find out what offline workarounds the teacher can offer.
  • Try these motivational techniques if you sense your kid’s energy for online learning is flagging.

For more tips and resources like these to help your family get set up for distance learning, check out our Back to School Guide at Wide Open School.