Dec 13 2021

Schools and States Continue to Seek Connectivity Solutions for Students

Some available Wi-Fi service options still don’t work in more remote areas, prompting outside-of-the-box thinking about how students can get online.

When they transitioned to remote learning during the pandemic, many K–12 schools encountered challenges trying to ensure all students could access course materials and instruction.

Although some districts were able to distribute mobile hotspots or direct families to low-cost residential broadband options, schools in rural locations faced an additional hurdle — a lack of available internet service that students could connect to.

In an April 2021 survey, 39 percent of rural residents reported that their children had some difficulty in using technology and the internet for online instruction.

Due to the challenges involved for service providers in building out 4G or 5G cable, fiber or other infrastructure elements in sparsely populated areas, internet access may not be unilaterally available, according to Bruce Miller, vice president of enterprise marketing at broadband solutions provider Cambium Networks.

“The easiest way to connect customers is often through fixed wireless solutions,” Miller says. “The provider sets up equipment at a central tower or similar location, and a subscriber unit at each residence. But mountains and hills can create a challenge by impeding line of sight to those locations.”

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Extending Wi-Fi Connects Students who Lack Home Access

A number of districts purchased personal Wi-Fi hotspots for students at the onset of the pandemic, Miller says. Burke County Public Schools in North Carolina handed out hotspots to some families. However, that wasn’t an option for all 12,000 students because some homes in the region are in particularly remote locations, according to Melanie Honeycutt, the district’s CIO.

“We do struggle,” Honeycutt says. “We have areas in our county that probably are 500 to 600 feet off the road, and they’re the only house there. They cannot get any kind of wireless connection whatsoever.”

At the onset of remote learning, Honeycutt says, roughly 30 percent of Burke County Public Schools’ K–12 students lacked a robust internet connection, which is required to access applications such as Google Classroom.

“We do a lot of activities that require really intense bandwidth,” she says. “We do a lot of video streaming — I have teachers that use YouTube in every class they teach. You can’t just have DSL. You have to have a high-speed internet connection.”

34%

The percentage of parents who said their child encountered at least one tech-related schoolwork obstacle during the pandemic

Source: pewresearch.org, “The Internet and the Pandemic,” Sept. 1, 2021

The district ­— which had installed wireless access points in classrooms and other instructional areas about five years ago — worked with Cambium Networks to add its Xirrus XH2-240 high-performance exterior access points and install 10-gigabit HPE switches in school network closets. This enables students without home access to log on outside of the district’s 25 schools and two auxiliary buildings.

Because outside access points require only a data uplink to the internet and power, they can be a fairly quick way to expand network coverage, Miller says.

“It’s relatively easy to install the AP, poke a line into the building and connect to the building’s network,” he says. “You’re essentially taking the inside network and blasting it outside into the parking lot.”

Students pulled up and parked in front of schools during the hours they had online instruction scheduled.

“During the pandemic, it wasn’t unusual to see our parking lots full,” Honeycutt says. “At any given time, we were probably looking at anywhere between 50 to 75 connections. It might be 75 people from 8 a.m to 10 a.m., and then another 75 from 12 p.m. to 2 p.m.”

RELATED: Schools work to close the connectivity gap with expanded, optimized networks.

Until staff could safely come back into the building, many teachers also used the outdoor access, Honeycutt says.

“Between 5 and 8 percent of our teachers — maybe even 10 percent — had either weak access or no access,” she notes. “So many of them took advantage of that outside piece, as well.”

Reconfigurations Help Schools Prepare for Other Digital Upgrades

To implement outdoor and other connectivity solutions, Miller says, K–12 schools may have to update their infrastructure; for instance, ensuring firewalls have the appropriate capacity. Some districts can tap into federal funding to pay for the work.

As of October 2020, at least 39 states had promised to put federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act funds toward addressing the K–12 digital divide, according to a National Conference of State Legislatures analysis.

“There is a definite awareness at the federal level about the digital divide and the homework gap,” Miller says. “There are programs they’ve put together to help inject funds into infrastructure to solve these problems. There are millions of dollars available, and many schools are taking advantage of that.”

States have also taken initiatives to help schools make online access more equitable. North Carolina, for instance, announced in July that it was forming an Office of Digital Equity and Literacy to help execute Gov. Roy Cooper’s plan to use more than $1 billion in American Rescue Plan funding to reduce the state’s digital divide.

Schools’ efforts to facilitate online access over the past year and a half may prove helpful in the future.

Melanie Honeycutt
By upgrading the switches and access points, and looking at Wi-Fi 6, we’re beginning to make sure our technology is consistent, invisible and supports learning.”

Melanie Honeycutt Chief Information Officer, Burke County Public Schools

Burke County Public Schools’ recent tech architecture upgrades have helped position the district for its current Wi-Fi 6 implementation, Honeycutt says, which will support Wi-Fi-enabled TVs in classrooms, students’ Chromebooks and reliable video streaming.

“If you’ve got three classrooms side by side and 90 devices — 30 on each of those access points — they’re fine,” Honeycutt says. “By upgrading the switches and access points, and looking at Wi-Fi 6, we’re beginning to make sure our technology is consistent, invisible and supports learning.”

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