Jul 19 2022

K–12 Schools Implement Connectivity Solutions to Narrow the Homework Gap

Two and a half years into the pandemic, schools work to solve digital equity issues that make it difficult for their students to get online at home.

It was several weeks into school closures caused by the COVID-19 pandemic when Dave Peterson looked out his office window at Washington’s Sunnyside School District and saw something unusual: A young man was sitting outside his house, trying to connect to Zoom over a smartphone hotspot so he could sign in to class. Then his sister came out and did the same; then his younger brother.

“Three kids trying to log on to Zoom from the same smartphone wasn’t going to cut it,” says Peterson, the district’s IT coordinator. He had an extra outdoor access point sitting on the floor in his office, so he grabbed it and went to talk to one of his system admins.

“Can we run a cable up a pole and broadcast a signal down that street?” he asked.

An hour later, the district was broadcasting high-speed internet to the family’s home, along with a handful of other houses in the neighborhood. When his superintendent found out what Peterson and his team had done, he had one question: “How many more places can you do that?”

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Peterson’s story is instructive, but hardly unique. More than two and half years into a global pandemic, school districts continue to struggle with high-speed Wi-Fi and the inequities that result when students and families can’t get consistent and reliable access to essential learning.

As communities adjust to life with COVID-19 and students and teachers return to school full-time, the widening of the so-called “homework gap” — where some learners unwillingly forfeit access to educational content outside of the traditional school day — has IT directors and their teams working overtime to deliver instruction and close learning gaps, especially for at-risk students. Access to reliable broadband remains central to that equation.

How Lynchburg City Schools Uses CBRS to Connect Students at Home

Doing the work is easier said than done — and how you do it often depends on where you live. Whether students hail from rural communities or urban centers, when it comes to digital learning, research suggests the barriers boil down to one of three critical factors: access to hardware or devices, funding levels or network infrastructure.

At Lynchburg City Schools in Virginia, IT Director John Collins says the region benefits from strong broadband coverage.

Unfortunately, in a district with 8,000 students, 63 percent of whom are eligible for free and reduced lunch, that coverage isn’t affordable for many of the community’s neediest families.

“A smartphone internet connection, even if it’s acting as a hotspot, is not enough,” explains Collins, “If you don’t start from the same place, it’s really difficult to climb the ladder at the same rate, or even get on the ladder in some cases. And that’s what access is all about. It’s about giving students what they need so they can grow. In the end, that’s what we’re all trying to do.”

GET THE CHECKLIST: Download a resource for K–12 schools looking to make network upgrades.

Over the years, the district has trotted out a litany of spot fixes to meet its goal of providing adequate high-speed internet access to all students, but those solutions weren’t sustainable.

To extend high-speed coverage to more families and close the homework gap long-term, Collins and the Lynchburg City Schools team recently launched Project WISH (Wireless Service at Home). By tapping into an unused portion of the Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) spectrum reserved for the U.S. Navy, the district plans to use specially outfitted Wi-Fi towers erected on school and municipal buildings to broadcast dedicated bandwidth to students and families in areas where Wi-Fi access remains weak or limited. The first tower was scheduled to go live in May 2022, with more to follow.

Collins says the program, if successful, will go a long way toward helping the district achieve its goal of 100 percent high-speed broadband access for every student.

Schools Explore Datacasting for Students Who Can't Access Wi-Fi 

While two-way, high-speed Wi-Fi remains the gold standard, there are circumstances where that level of access is simply not available or doesn’t make sense for a particular group of learners, such as incarcerated youth or students in hard-to-reach communities.

Ben Smith is assistant director of educational technology for the Lincoln Intermediate Unit, an educational service center serving 25 districts over three Pennsylvania counties.

In addition to several students whose remote geographic locations prohibit access to high-speed Wi-Fi, his team is responsible for delivering educational content to nearly two dozen students in juvenile detention facilities.

As a workaround, the service center is partnering with PBS to transfer files to students over the air using TV broadcast signals.

Called datacasting, the technology works by setting up an antenna connected to a receiver box that acts like a router, where files are posted and stored.

KEEP READING: K–12 leaders speak on equitable education through technology.

“All teachers have to do is drag and drop the files they want to share with students. PDFs and Microsoft Word documents are transferred in minutes. Large, 200-megabit files like videos could be done easily in a couple of hours overnight,” he says.

While datacasting has limitations — it’s essentially an open network that only allows one-way communication — the ability for teachers to post and share files of almost any size means students with limited or no access to two-way Wi-Fi can still access critical learning materials.

Planning Is Key for Schools Depending on Government Funding 

As K—12 schools transition from the special brand of chaos that defined the smash-and-grab innovation of the initial months of the pandemic, administrators have begun to shift their focus from early-stage triage to long-haul sustainability. For its part, the Federal Communications Commission, which runs the E-rate program, launched the Emergency Connectivity Fund in 2021. But ECF — a massive $7 billion relief package designed to help schools and libraries deliver remote learning through necessary hardware and services — has largely run out.

12.5 Million

The number of students connected to the internet because of the Emergency Connectivity Fund

Source: Federal Communications Commission, “FCC Commits Nearly $39 Million in Emergency Broadband Connectivity Fund Support for Schools and Libraries to Help Close the Homework Gap,” May 4, 2022

Brian Stephens, client solutions manager at Funds for Learning, which helps schools navigate the funding process, says programs like the ECF were always intended to be temporary. The ECF was created to help lessen the sting of that initial transition. But how schools choose to sustain that technology over the long haul will come down to strategy and planning.

If the goal is to use E-rate funds, Stephens says, school IT leaders must plan far enough out — at least a year in advance — so they know what refreshes in technology are on the horizon and can include those upgrades in a funding application or otherwise budget for them accordingly.

Educators See These Connectivity Efforts as a Start

Back in Washington State, Sunnyside’s Peterson is working on an initiative that will connect even more students in the district. Nicknamed Gemini, the project leverages dark Long-Term Evolution (LTE) wireless and CBRS to create high-speed outdoor Wi-Fi networks that students can access with dedicated Cradlepoint modems. Each network, supported by a tower on a local school building, has a coverage radius of half a mile and brings students into the district’s existing network. The benefit of this setup is twofold: All existing firewalls and security measures apply, and it’s a Wi-Fi extension, not a gift, which makes it eligible for E-rate funding.

John Collins, Lynchburg City Schools Pull Quote

 

“I see what’s happened the past couple of years as an opportunity to push education forward,” says Peterson. “Programs like Gemini won’t get us all the way there, but it’s a start.”

Illustration by Ryan Olbrysh

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