Oct 29 2021

Network Upgrades Support Large Schools with Small IT Staff

As school networks experience increasing demands and challenges, districts need a solution that doesn’t place additional burdens on IT teams.

Arguably the busiest people in the school district since the pandemic started are the IT professionals. Their jobs, in an instant, went from routinely manageable — solving printing problems and troubleshooting wired internet connections — to running new education platforms in and outside the building. When the reliability of the network infrastructure wavers, so does the students’ education, as so much of it is now completely dependent on a solid Wi-Fi connection.

Some IT teams are running on empty, still putting out virtual fires in emergency mode, with more pressure than ever to keep the internet connections intact for staff, students and administrators. Despite their often limited size, K–12 IT teams can take concrete steps to improve connectivity and reduce the number of issues taxing their time. Humble Independent School District upgraded its network, a solution that improved connectivity for 42,000 students in the Texas district, without any additional staff. These forward-thinking and sustainable solutions are exactly what K–12 schools need now.

IT Teams Face Unprecedented Challenges

While it may seem that education is simplifying by moving everything online, an elaborate and well-supported infrastructure is at work behind the scenes to support schools in that transition.

EXPLORE: Solutions from Extreme Networks allow districts with IT teams of any size to stay connected.

“IT administrators wear so many hats. There are more devices running on the network today than ever before,” says Sarah Bryant, K–12 education specialist at Extreme Networks. “On top of the day-to-day tasks and activities, they are now bombarded with the Internet of Things. The network now controls Power over Ethernet lighting systems, HALO vape sensors, gunfire detection technology and even the HVAC, to name a few. That all falls on the IT staff, so that workload has never been bigger than it is today.” In addition, districts are contending with network needs outside the building, from parking lot Wi-Fi access for quarantined students to hybrid teaching needs.

Bryant says progress takes “time and money,” and improvements can be slow to implement as districts decide how to prioritize necessary upgrades.

The Pressure to Stay Connected

What do we lose if a district’s network infrastructure isn’t strong enough to stay connected? Teachers rely on a strong connection in their lesson planning, and they lose valuable instructional time if they have to stop to troubleshoot connection issues or wait for an understaffed and overworked IT team to respond.

WATCH NOW: Learn how one district innovated on a small budget with limited staff.

Online testing, which carries strict regulations from the state, is a primary connectivity concern, Bryant says. “Schools put a lot of time, energy and resources into online testing. If there are any outages or disturbances to the network, they run the risk of having to reschedule and do it all over again,” she says.

But testing details seem relatively insignificant in the shadow of emergency response platforms, such as automatic door locks and 911 emergency response systems. These pressures mean it’s time for new solutions.

Making Necessary Upgrades: The Future of K–12 Network Connection

IT teams can take specific steps to ensure they are adequately supporting all of K–12 schools’ needs in their districts, Bryant says. Some of the strategies require very little cost and effort; others need more, but will ensure radically improved performance.

Sarah Bryant
IT administrators wear so many hats. There are more devices running on the network today than ever before.”

Sarah Bryant K–12 Education Specialist, Extreme Networks

Bryant hopes IT teams are focused on maintaining support for their current systems, staying up to date with upgrades and bug fixes, which she calls “the bare minimum.”

“Extreme backs every solution with the industry’s only 100 percent in-sourced support team, so when an issue arises, schools know that they’re going to be able to speak to somebody with the level of expertise necessary to get them back up and running,” she says.

Plan Ahead for New Devices and Wi-Fi

We all know what’s coming with the holiday season — an influx of new smartphones and other personal devices, with students ready and excited to use them at school, potentially bombarding the network. “End-user devices evolve quickly. There’s a new smartphone every year,” she says. “Many district networks still run on a five year-plus network refresh cycle. Especially if they’re using funding programs such as E-rate, it is important districts to think several years ahead when planning their network upgrades.”

LEARN MORE: Navigate government funding to optimize network health.

Wi-Fi 6E, a “game changer” for K–12 districts according to Bryant, provides districts a clean spectrum and high throughput. This, she anticipates, will solve many online testing disruptions, calling it the most exciting advancement in the evolution of Wi-Fi to date. “Believe it or not, there are already several Wi-Fi 6E clients out right now, such as the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra, the first Wi-Fi 6E smartphone,” she says. “With the current BYOD environment in schools now, school networks need to be prepared for these new clients coming on.”

She adds that even if schools don’t have 6E clients now, with 6E-enabled access points they can do rogue detection in the 6 gigahertz spectrum, which can also be used to improve mesh environments. This will allow stressed IT staff members to be future-ready, not reactive.

“To deliver more speed, lower latency and more density, you need to be at the forefront of technology, which right now is Wi-Fi 6E,” Bryant says.

Shift Infrastructure Management to the Cloud

The pandemic-driven remote work shift has increased the need for cloud management tenfold, Bryant says. Districts currently have the option to use ExtremeCloud IQ, which integrates every aspect of the network, from deployment to maintenance. “This helps IT staff focus on what’s really important to them instead of dealing with menial and time-consuming operational tasks,” Bryant says, because the platform allows them to manage their infrastructure from anywhere.

These necessary and forward-thinking transitions empower IT administrators to manage highly connected and reliable networks to better educate students.

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