How Tom Green County IT staff is tackling COVID-19 challenges

Staff issued laptops, VPNs and attempting project restarts

By Justin Thornton

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2020 has been the year for creative thinking and endless opportunities for information technology departments in county government. The year began like any other year with preparing the budget, ordering equipment and scheduling projects. However, COVID-19 created a new set of challenges for everyone, and I found two common themes when dealing with situations in 2020. The two common themes are how many unknown variables you can account for and how well does your department adapt and overcome. 

All bets were off when COVID-19 came on full force. COVID-19 created a unique opportunity for the IT department to creatively solve numerous problems in a short time. The challenges we encountered included the following. Before this year, our county did not allow more than 30 people access through the virtual private network (VPN), and laptops and web cameras were not required for the majority of jobs. Now the needs of users meant most office staff employees required VPN access, and laptops and web cameras were needed for most positions. The need for devices was overwhelming, and we did not have enough equipment on hand to satisfy the demand at first. Additionally, controlling remote access while protecting the county was a huge challenge since most users were "remoting in" to the network. 

To solve these issues, we issued laptops to everyone who could work from home. When we ran out of laptops, we began placing orders for equipment to our vendors, but the availability of new devices could not satisfy the national demand, which caused shipping times to go from seven to 10 days out to eight to 10 weeks. Other hardware, such as web cameras, became scarce and required taking web cameras from departments that did not need them to perform their jobs and issuing them to those who required them. When laptops were no longer an option, we resorted to issuing desktops to some employees to work safely from home. Overall, we were able to manage the county’s needs until the county offices started to open back up to the public.

When we began trying to open the courts and needed to provide specific safety measures, money was found in the CARES Act grant; however, we were given very little time to prepare for face-to-face court and Zoom court sessions. We are still trying to meet the need for Zoom hearings by installing more video and audio equipment, but, again, equipment has been difficult to acquire.

In an attempt to get back to normal operations, the IT department is restarting the projects scheduled for 2020 that were put on hold, but a new issue has developed. The scheduling of staff and projects is currently hindered by employees being exposed to and quarantined from COVID-19. It seems futile to even plan on employees being available or projects being completed on time because you never know when someone may be quarantined. However, I am proud to say the IT department at Tom Green County has shown great resilience and adaptability during the pandemic. We have taken care of our county the best we can while working to stay safe ourselves. It is a stressful and uncertain time, but the IT department continues to find creative solutions to meet the needs of the county employees

Justin Thornton is Tom Green County’s county information services officer and director of its Information Technology Department.