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Schools reporting fewer online classes 'broken into', says principals association

We spoke to one parent whose son’s class was crashed by a stranger who shared inappropriate material.

Image: Shutterstock/Juliya Shangarey

SCHOOLS ACROSS IRELAND have been reporting that fewer online classes are being ‘crashed’ or ‘zoombombed’, a member of the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals has said.

Its past president Alan Mongey was speaking to TheJournal.ie after two recent reports about online classes being broken into by strangers.

In one case, as reported by the Irish Independent, a number of men gained access to a Co Meath school’s online class which was taking place on Microsoft Teams. The incident has been reported to the gardaí, Department of Education and Tusla due to the gravity of the behaviour.

A similar incident occurred in a school in north Dublin this week. The mother of one of the primary-age students in the class, who did not want to be named, told TheJournal.ie that her son experienced a ‘break-in’ to his online class, which was held using Google Meet. 

“Someone joined our class call four or five minutes in, they started sharing their screen with inappropriate rude stuff. The person had their camera off and only talked once, they sounded male,” her son said. 

This had never happened before to his class. 

“The teacher quickly told everyone to immediately leave the call and shut the call down,” said the boy’s mother. Asked about safety measures being introduced, she said that this is being worked on and that the school had to suspend calls/online classes in the interim.

How did her son feel about the incident? “He found it disturbing, and was very annoyed because he had to end the call with his teacher and friends, he’d been looking forward to in-person interaction with his classmates,” she said. 

“[The students] were all upset and confused, and their teacher seemed upset as well,” she added.

She said that as a parent, she was “angry – both at the effect on my son and his classmates and at the disruption to their class at an already difficult time for them”.

“Also baffled as to why anyone would be stupid or malicious enough to want to upset/shock a bunch of 10 and 11 year olds and shut down their class ‘for fun’. I’d also really like to know how the person in question accessed the meeting invite – the call in question was on Google Meet but I understand similar incidents have happened with Zoom.”

It’s understood that issues like this emerged last year on Google Meet, but the company rolled out new features to stop it from happening.

In addition, the team behind Google Meet said about recent security updates:

“We have it easier for moderators to manage who can join their meetings with a simple toggle called Quick access. Educators also have new meeting controls to manage who can share their screen and who can send chat messages within the meeting to make the distance learning environment as safe as possible.”

‘You still have students that act up’

Alan Mongey is the past president of the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals and is principal of Colaiste Bhaile Chláir in Claregalway. 

“We haven’t experienced [break-ins]. We’ve been using Microsoft Teams for a couple of years. We had prepared for it in terms of making sure security settings were very tight and restricted for people trying to come in with outside email addresses,” he said.

He said that early on in the pandemic, some schools ran into challenges with the security side of online learning. “They may not have had their security settings as strict as they should have been. That would have been the biggest issue for them.”

He said that the school in Co Meath has since amended its security settings to make sure no one outside the required email addresses can access the system even if they have the link for the class. 

Security settings

While some security settings don’t allow people to access online classes at all, others will place the new entrant into a virtual ‘waiting room’, and people have begun to find ways to gain access that way.

Mongey said that the main way people access classes is through finding the URL for the class online. He said that usually it is a student who has shared the URL – sometimes with a fellow student, other times by posting it on a forum online.

On the topic of the URLs for online classes falling into the wrong hands, he said:

“A lot comes down to: in school you have students who act up and misbehave and schools deal with it accordingly. Online school is no different, you still have students who act up and try to have fun and cause hassle and trouble. 

“When you have the systems and structures in place to make sure school rules apply online, you are less likely to have those issues.”

He said that schools need to “be a step ahead of them and know the things they might try to do, keep an eye on that”.

According to Mongey, issues around online classes have decreased since the early days of online schooling. 

“The first time round when you were going on all those platforms you were figuring out what the kids might be doing in terms of posting those links on particular websites, 

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“The first time round probably was a bit more of that but this time around it’s much more locked down. The number of instances where these instances have arisen are far, far less than the previous time around. Schools are that bit more prepared.”

Mongey did say that schools often allow students to organise their own meetings, to help them build up digital literacy and responsibility online.

“Once you have clear guidelines for them with the right structures in place you don’t have to tie the systems down too much that they can’t learn how to use it.”

On the positive side, Mongey said that engagement levels for online classes are “far better than they were in the first lockdown”.

“We’re up on 100%, 99%, 98% attendance at all levels. The students are engaging. They are much more comfortable this time around it, they’re a lot more used to it.”

He said that levels of engagement are way up and “attendance is probably better than normal school”.

“It’s not as good as face to face, but it’s much better.”

No additional incidents

The Department of Education said in a statement that “no additional incidents of intrusion into online video conferencing have been reported to the Department other than the incident reported recently” and that it understands the school in question ”has taken appropriate steps to address this incident and prevent a recurrence”.

It added that a range of supports is provided to schools to assist them in supporting remote teaching and learning.

It said that schools “are expected to have a robust school policy in place which governs the use of digital technologies in the school setting”.

“Extensive support and advice for teachers and schools to provide remote learning is available to through the Department-funded teacher support service, the Professional Development Service for Teachers (PDST)

It also said that the Department supports the provision of information on online safety available to schools, teachers, parents and young people through its webwise project.

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