Eric Wimbish, Executive Director of Technology at Clovis (N.M.) Municipal School District, saw an immediate improvement after upgrading to Wi-Fi 6.

Jul 31 2023

K–12 Schools Share Their Journeys to Freedom, Connection With Wi-Fi 6

Schools across the nation are bolstering their wireless networks for better engagement and more reliable connection speeds.

It wasn’t long after students and teachers fully returned to classrooms at Clovis Municipal School District in New Mexico in fall 2020 that Eric Wimbish began to hear complaints about the Wi-Fi.

“The wireless is horrible,” he overheard students on the high school esports team say, perhaps unaware that Wimbish, their coach, was also the district’s executive director of technology. Teachers agreed, saying that slow wireless speeds hindered their use of technology for teaching.

It wasn’t always that way. Prior to COVID-19, the district equipped each student with a Chromebook, but their use was not widespread. While teaching online during lockdown, educators embraced multimedia and online apps, and they wanted to continue using them upon returning to campus.

“When everyone came back, it wasn’t, ‘Hey, let’s put these away and go back to paper and pencil.’ We noticed a big uptick in utilizing online resources,” Wimbish recalls. “It was tearing down our network every day.”

This past winter and spring, the Clovis IT team replaced the wireless infrastructure, which was mostly made up of decade-old 802.11ac (Wi-Fi 5) access points, in 16 of its 18 schools. Now, with new Cisco Meraki MR56 802.11ax (Wi-Fi 6) APs, wireless complaints at Clovis are a thing of the past.

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Wi-Fi 6 Leads to Performance Improvements

Whether students are in classrooms, the cafeteria or the school library, Wi-Fi speeds can either impede or support teaching and learning, particularly with video now a crucial part of education. For a growing number of schools, that means adopting Wi-Fi 6 or 6E equipment.

“Wi-Fi 6 and 6E provide significant improvements in performance, latency, propagation, security and device support scalability over earlier generations,” says Will Townsend, vice president and principal analyst at Moor Insights & Strategy. “In education, this can support connected classrooms with digital whiteboards and Chromebooks and also can be used in administrative and back-office operations and lab settings.”

Wi-Fi 6E, the latest standard, adds support for the previously unlicensed 6 gigahertz portion of the wireless spectrum, which enables even faster speeds, lower latency and improved security.

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Wi-Fi 6E Frees Teachers from Unreliable Connections

With the Wi-Fi upgrade, Clovis’s teachers and students now have faster and more seamless access to videos and collaboration and productivity tools, such as Google Workspace for Education, Wimbish says.

Teachers use the wireless connections to engage students with interactive apps and YouTube videos. Sometimes, students stream content or presentations from their devices to classroom projector screens.

“Students can now get on and watch an educational video without the lag or stuttering,” he says. “The Wi-Fi is a lot faster. More people can get on at the same time.”

Because Clovis, N.M., is also in a rural area, the improved Wi-Fi allowed the district to alleviate its teacher shortage by hiring about 10 full-time and 30 part-time remote teachers — who live outside the area — to teach local students.

Clovis students can see their remote teachers and their presentations through a Google Meet videoconferencing session that’s projected to classroom screens. A webcam in the classroom allows the remote teachers to see their students.

LEARN MORE: Here are three things to consider when giving school networks a makeover.

Increasing the number of wireless access points was key for remote teaching. Wimbish purchased 745 wireless APs for schools using E-rate funds. He also purchased an additional 100 APs using district funds to cover the central administrative office, the transportation facility and the student support center.

The district is taking a phased approach to bolstering bandwidth. First, during the summer of 2022, the Clovis IT staff installed new Cisco Catalyst 9300 Series and 9500 Series switches to handle the increased throughput from the new APs. Then, that September, Clovis hired a third party to upgrade the district from CAT 6 to CAT 6A cabling.

In December and into spring 2023, Wimbish and his team installed new Cisco Meraki APs. They started with the high school, then went on to the middle and elementary schools. They plan to complete the remaining two schools this summer.

In the coming years, the district will purchase new Wi-Fi 6-compatible Chromebooks for students to get the full benefits of the new standard. In the meantime, students, faculty and staff can still take advantage of improved speeds.

“We are seeing a 70 percent increase in the amount of bandwidth available,” Wimbish says.

Goodbye to Spotty Internet, Hello to Flawless Streaming

In San Diego, the King-Chavez Neighborhood of Schools recently replaced its aging Wi-Fi 5 network with new Wi-Fi 6 equipment. The upgrade has allowed teachers to integrate technology into their lesson plans without worrying about spotty internet access, says Carlos Salazar, the schools’ director of technology and innovation.

“Teachers have a level of trust now. They can build their lessons around technology knowing that their Wi-Fi is going to work,” he says. “Our tech support tickets for student connectivity have decreased tremendously.”

King-Chavez, a family of five free public charter schools with a total of 1,500 students, upgraded to Wi-Fi 6 using Extreme Networks 510C APs in 2021. In doing so, the IT department increased the number of APs from 230 to 355. Instead of one AP for every two to three classrooms, there is now one in every classroom.

Salazar and his team replaced CAT 5 cabling with CAT 6 and upgraded their Gigabit Ethernet switches, installing 96 Extreme Networks 5520 10 Gigabit switches. They also quadrupled internet speeds from 1 gigabit per second to 4Gbps.

WATCH: Here’s how network upgrades connect students to immersive experiences.

Teachers relied heavily on video and videoconferencing when they shifted to remote learning, and they’ve continued to use the technology now that students are back in classrooms, Salazar says.

“They saw value in it and wanted to continue to build on what they did during the pandemic,” he says.

Teachers regularly record their lectures using their laptops and document cameras and post them on the learning management system so students can review lessons anytime. Teachers also frequently use YouTube videos or create their own video content for use in class.

The previous wireless network struggled when a roomful of students tried to watch videos on their Lenovo Chromebooks. Now, all students can flawlessly stream videos on their devices, Salazar says. 


The percentage of K-12 IT leaders who say enabling Wi-Fi 6 capability is important or very important

Source: Consortium for School Networking, EdTech Leadership Survey Report, April 2022

Newer Wi-Fi Equals Longer Network Life

In Missouri, the 3,300-student Festus R-VI School District needed to refresh the Wi-Fi network at its high school, but the project was delayed for 10 months because of supply chain constraints.

Technology Director Josh Bauman initially planned to replace antiquated Wi-Fi 4 APs with new Wi-Fi 5 APs, as he had done a year earlier for the district’s elementary, middle and intermediate schools. But when Wi-Fi 6E APs became available first amid the supply shortages, he jumped at the chance to deploy the cutting-edge technology across the high school and its new performing arts center. The district filed for a substitution with E-rate, received approval and purchased 90 HPE Aruba AP-635 6E access points.

CHECK OUT: These essential networking finds can boost digital equity, school capacity and speed.

“We were excited just to get APs, and it was icing on the cake that it was the newer-generation equipment,” Bauman says. “You get that longer life immediately, which was super attractive to us.”

The new Wi-Fi 6E network at the high school is blazing fast, Bauman says. Students can stream video on their Chromebooks with no lag or jitter and seamlessly take their state assessments online. The Wi-Fi 6E APs future-proof the network for at least five years, he says.

“Having a robust infrastructure is important,” Bauman says. “In everything our students do, there’s typically an online component.”

Carlos Salazar
Teachers have a level of trust now. They can build their lessons around technology knowing that their Wi-Fi is going to work.”

Carlos Salazar Director of Technology and Innovation, King-Chavez Neighborhood of Schools

Photography by Steven St. John

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