Are you a Metro Nashville Public Schools parent worried about the safety and distraction of your kids on district-issued devices? We’re coming to grips with the fact that all students K-12 are facing the long-term reality that one-to-one technology is here to stay, something that was not remotely on our radar just one year ago.
As MNPS phases in by grade level across the district, we’ve learned more about the role district-issued devices will have in our kids’ continued learning. The bottom line is, even if you’ve had a computer at home for your kid to use, if they are slated to go back in person, you will be asked to have a district-issued device assigned to your student instead.
Many parents aren’t sure how to protect their kids on their family-owned devices (we could all improve our understanding of safety to some degree when it comes to devices we’ve purchased and sanctioned in our homes). But now… new devices are coming in (or have already come in) that we may not understand in the slightest. Parents may even make dangerous assumptions about the safety features already enabled on district issued devices.
WIFI / Router Solutions
Our family in particular is not new to the filtering/monitoring game, having been early adopters of Circle, which served our family really well for over 4 years. Circle is a wifi solution that filters/blocks/monitors the traffic coming in and out of our home router. (Do you know the difference between filtering and blocking? Take our Tech Safety Quiz!)
Even though we “knew what we were doing” we were still experiencing challenges with successfully protecting our district devices. Our 1st Gen Circle was on it’s last legs (wonky, no longer updatable), and now that we have only teenagers, we thought we might test out a few other products while we’re at it. Specifically, we were trying to slay the monstrous beast of YouTube distraction on our kids’ MNPS laptops.
Our first attempt was Bark Home, which we were initially really happy with. (We love Bark and use their services on our kids’ mobile devices for content monitoring and filtering already). Unfortunately, blocking YouTube was not working on the one MNPS device we had received in August (we now know why… more of that below). Also, our upload speeds with 3 of us on video classes or meetings throughout the day were impacted more than we could endure. So that solution was short-lived and we had to pause on that for the time being.
In January, we added a second MNPS laptop to our home configuration, and the hunt intensified for a way to keep kid #2 off YouTube. (When that kid was only on our personal laptop, blocking YT worked with Bark Home.) Our next router option was Gryphon, a top recommendation we’ve heard from many online safety allies. After getting Gryphon up and running, we were able to successfully block YT on the second MNPS device (the newer one) but NOT the original MNPS device we got in the fall. (Here’s a Facebook live video that explains more of the story).
Q/A With MNPS
A few weeks ago, I reached out to our high school principal to better understand what protections were on the district-issued devices, and what additional protections could possibly be put in place. She forwarded my email to the IT Director for our district, John Teeter. John responded to my questions via email, and last week I had a very helpful phone conversation with him to clear up some additional questions that have emerged from other parents. I expressed to him the desire to not overrun his department or the school principals with technical questions, but instead, to be a vehicle for clear information that parents can look to in order to keep our kids safe online. My aim is to help lighten the MNPS load with basic home-strategies for our kids, so that all of our educators and administrators can focus their energy on getting kids back to school and keeping everyone healthy.
Below are the basics of what every MNPS parent needs to understand about the district-issued laptops and how to protect kids on them. These answers were confirmed as accurate with Mr. Teeter.
Q: What protective/safety features are already in place on my MNPS laptop?
A: Last Spring, the district started deploying laptops to any student in need, not fully able to see at that time that a long-term solution would be required, and soon. Those laptops were issued with something called Global Protect installed, which has VPN (virtual private network) functionality. This VPN technology is essentially used as a tunnel that routes traffic to school servers, thereby going around any other wifi/router solutions a family might have in place. This turned out to be the root of the issue our family was having with the first MNPS device we brought home in the Fall.
This is a significant point of clarification: You need to check your student’s laptop to see if it’s a Global Protect laptop. Look for this graphic in the bottom right corner of the screen:
If you find that your student’s laptop is using Global Protect, you can (and should) request to trade it in for a different model which is running the new security protocol that is a longer-term solution called Securly. Securly is a third party vendor MNPS switched to mid-2020, which has more effective standardized online safety protocols in order to be in compliance with CIPA (Children’s Internet Protection Act). The good news is that Securly will give parents more options to add additional controls to filter or restrict content (keep reading).
If your student’s PC is running Global Protect, you will not be able to filter the internet activity allowed on that device through a wifi/router solution (ie. Circle, Bark, Gryphon). If your student is running Securly, you can add additional controls for filtering and content restrictions.
Q: What does MNPS block on district devices through Securly?
A: Here are the categories of web sites Securly automatically blocks on every district-issued device:
Other adult content (think Victoria’s Secret)
Social media & social networking
Network misuse (hacking and evasion sites)
Search engines that don’t have “safe search” (think Duck Duck Go)
Streaming media (Netflix / Spotify)
From the district: If inappropriate content is discovered to be accessible that does not already get classified by way of the standard filtering categories, the school would notify the Technology Services Department and it would be manually added to the blocked content.
Q: What about other things I want to block, like YouTube?
A: Under the current configuration of Securly, parents do not have access to any kind of parent dashboard provided by the district that would give them additional customization control over their child’s content. However, this option does exist under Securly services and it may be something MNPS could eventually add (the onboarding of all family accounts would be a significant undertaking).
So what can a parent do to restrict access to other distracting web sites? If your student has a Securly-protected PC, you have a few options.
Use a wifi/router solution with parental controls that will allow you to blacklist certain sites or block platforms (again, this won’t work with Global Protect PCs). Though the wifi/router solution comes with a price tag (about $100-$150), it’s the most comprehensive way to block content, set time limits, pause the Internet etc. Circle Home Plus, Bark Home, and Gryphon are all excellent options.
FREE: Use an “extension” on Chrome or Microsoft Edge called “Block Site.” This will allow you to block specific sites accessed through a browser. However, this can be problematic on devices that are going to go back and forth to school. There could be a legitimate reason for accessing a YouTube video for a class, for example, and if that need comes up while your kid is at school, you won’t be able to put in the override code. For kids staying virtual, this might be a feasible option if an adult is present to grant access.
ALSO FREE: If YouTube is what you’re trying to reign in, you could take advantage of monitoring features via Google Activity. Because YouTube is owned by Google, all YT history (and Google searches/urls accessed) are logged in an “activity” page that is separate from history. So if a kid is deleting items of internet activity from their browser history, that activity is STILL logged in their “activity.” All you need to monitor activity is a Google profile that is logged in on the browser your kid uses. Both of my kids have gmail accounts, which gives them a Google profile. I know the password and have their profiles saved so I can log in easily and review their activity. Even my one kid who uses Microsoft Edge as a browser, he still logs in to his Google account, so the activity page records his YT views and Google searches. I can see what he’s doing in another room, and I can hold him accountable to staying off of YT. So if my kid has a legit reason to need YT, I can allow it through my router temporarily, and then check the activity page to make sure they honored my expectation to not stay on YT more than needed. Again, Google Activity won’t BLOCK YT, but it can MONITOR it so you can verify whether or not your kid has been on it and what they’ve watched.
It should be noted that YouTube content restrictions through the district are currently set to “moderate,” which are the same settings used while on the MNPS networks. Kids still have access to a lot of harmful content via YT, simply because there’s so much of it out there.
Q: Are the district’s settings through Securly different to accommodate the differences in ages across MNPS?
A: Somewhat. According to Mr. Teeter, “When student devices leave the MNPS Networks (school campuses), all MNPS parameters for blocking activity are essentially the same (elementary – middle – high schools). While connected to the in-building MNPS networks, the devices have a slightly different configuration per age group (with the most limited configuration for the youngest users). For example, Facebook, Twitter and other social media services are restricted at grade level PK-4, as are the majority of gaming sites unless they have been vetted and cleared by MNPS for educational use.” (This makes me wonder if high school students will be able to access Twitter inside their buildings. I plan to test that theory come March 3, when high schoolers go back.)
Q: Are individual schools able to customize their Securly settings? Or are they dictated by the district?
A: Filter settings are applied at the district level and schools can request a block or allow review for specific items by the Technology Services Department. (If something becomes an issue, ask your principal. If it’s an issue school wide, perhaps something can be done.)
Q: Can I just download some kind of parental control option to my student’s district-issued device?
A: You probably have already realized the answer to that is no. Only solutions that externally govern the device such as a wifi/router solution will work. I should note that a wired connection that runs from a router with parental controls and plugs into a device would function the same way.
Q: If our family doesn’t have Internet but uses a district-issued mobile hotspot, do we have any extra safety options?
A: Unfortunately, the answer is likely no. The way external filtering technology works (wifi/router filtering), there is often an ethernet cable involved, and mobile hotspot boxes typically don’t have an ethernet port. (We are working on confirming which brand of hotspots were deployed and if ethernet cable connection is a feature).
This is yet another example of inequities across our district. Although being an engaged parent does not depend on financial status, those who have the means can put more safety nets in place to protect their kids online.
If you’ve made it to the bottom of this article, give yourself a gold star. Parenting through the pandemic is no joke, and we’re not out of the woods by a long shot. But I hope and pray this info will give you more insight into how you can protect your kids online. If you find yourself in need of more personal coaching from us, we’d love to help. For those who might be able to afford this, we offer consultations at an hourly rate. However, we are happy to come alongside any parent to get their kids protected online, regardless of the ability to pay. You can simply shoot us a message on social media, or on this page to find out more info. If you’re ready to book a paid consultation, click below.
We simply love helping parents.