May 23 2022

3 Things to Consider When Making Over School Networks for Post-Pandemic Learning

For many K–12 schools, the pandemic revealed they were long overdue for a network refresh. Here’s what some schools are doing to ensure the best results for students this fall.

Located about two hours southeast of Dallas, Troup Independent School District is one of many K–12 school districts planning a network makeover this summer to better support post-pandemic learning in the fall.

Like many others, the three-school, 1,000-student district went one-to-one with student devices during the pandemic and now has thousands of new student devices alone accessing the network.

“We ran into limitations with students getting on the internet, using streaming services,” says Technology Director Reginald Gossett, noting that Troup ISD is on a 10-year refresh cycle. “Without adequate bandwidth, you get slow internet connections, students not able to log in and get to the services that they need.”

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Troup ISD is not alone. The Consortium for School Networking’s 2021 EdTech Leadership Survey Report found that more than one-third of respondents need to upgrade their firewall and infrastructure components to support the Federal Communications Commission’s long-term goal of 1 gigabit per second per 1,000 users in all their schools.

“When asked about other infrastructure upgrades to meet FCC goals, the majority need upgrades for the key components to achieve the long-term goal—57% for both gateway routers and content filtering and 54% for DMZ switching,” the report states.

EdTech spoke with industry experts and school leaders about key considerations when undergoing this process and the lessons they learned.

1. K–12 IT Leaders Must Future Proof Their Next Network Upgrades

St. Vrain Valley School District in Colorado is currently conducting a routine refresh of its network switches, which it does every six years. The district, which has 33,000 students and 60 schools, also plans to upgrade its wireless infrastructure.

“The current implementation of our wireless was done about five years ago, and we try to stay within the five- to seven-year range for our network infrastructure refresh cycle,” CTO Michelle Bourgeois says. “Our goal is to refresh access points as well as our access controller well before they hit end of service life.”

The district is also exploring Wi-Fi 6 and other means to increase the capacity of its wireless networks, as the number of in-school devices continues to escalate, beyond its one-to-one deployments.

“When you think about supplemental devices that are brought into classrooms, such as robotics and all of the other amazing things that kids can do with devices that are network-connected, we’re probably sitting more at a three-to-one buildout,” Bourgeois says.

RELATED: Learn more about the top 3 ways to future proof your K–12 networks.

2. Schools Should Carefully Plan the Rollout of Networking Upgrades

Switches, routers and access points all need to be replaced every five to seven years. In addition to these core elements, “you also don’t want to run your firewalls until they’re dead,” says CoSN Cybersecurity Project Director Amy McLaughlin.

“Replenishing your firewall every five or so years is a good way to go. And a lot of firewall vendors will now basically hand you the box at very low cost, because what you’re licensing is the services,” she says.

Given all the components that make up the network infrastructure, McLaughlin encourages districts to take a rolling approach to upgrades.

“My personal preference is to never have to do it all at once. Of course, if your infrastructure has fallen so far behind that it is all failing at the same time, you will have to do it all at once. But it’s best to have a continuous process,” she says.

EXPLORE: How legacy technology and systems open the door for cybercriminals.

This approach ensures districts have enough people to do the work, “and it’s also budgetary. You must have a consistent line item in your budget: Every year, you need to buy one-fifth of your switches and replace them,” she says.

At the same time, some make the case for doing one big lift. Gossett, for example, says that replacing multiple components at once can help support a smoother rollout.

“When you get new equipment and you connect it to older equipment, it makes the older equipment have to work harder,” he says. “I felt like it would be better for us to go ahead and pay for it all upfront and replace it all at the same time. That way, everything is new, all the configurations and settings.”

His experience validates the approach: When he came to the district two years ago and upgraded to Wi-Fi 6 and 6E wireless access points, configuration problems arose. “That’s what brought me to the conclusion that it was best to switch it out all at the same time as opposed to doing it piecemeal,” he says.

Amy McLaughlin
Of course, if your infrastructure has fallen so far behind that it is all failing at the same time, you will have to do it all at once. But it’s best to have a continuous process.”

Amy McLaughlin Cybersecurity Project Director, CoSN

3. K–12 IT Teams Should Look for These Enhanced Network Features 

Upgraded networking not only brings added capacity, but it also enables schools to tap new and emerging features.

“I’ve been looking at the latest and greatest anti-virus offerings dealing with endpoint detection and response,” Gossett says. “That will help us tremendously as far as finding out vulnerabilities in the network or on a device or computer.”

At a time when IT teams are already stretched thin, Bourgeois too is looking to advanced capabilities in support of better network management.

DIVE DEEPER: Make these tech adjustments to deal with staff shortages.

“We have to get smarter about how we support our network. Part of that is looking into the future of self-healing networks and machine learning,” she says. “Rather than a human getting an alert, getting into a vehicle and driving to a site when a switch goes down, we want to leverage forward-looking technology to help us do those things remotely and automatically, without human intervention.”

Many districts would benefit from these features, which can make it easier to support the network, and ultimately to deliver effective learning outcomes.

“We’re seeing a lot more management automation,” McLaughlin says. “You don’t want to have to spend the time going to every single device to do each individual upgrade. You want automated rollout, as well as an automated ability to make sure that your configurations are consistent.”

When it comes time to upgrade, Bourgeois says, strong vendor relationships can also help ensure things go smoothly.

“We are looking at how we might leverage vendor partners so that we can concentrate our work into a shorter timeline. They can help with preconfiguration of resources so that hardware comes to us ready to deploy,” she says. “We’ve used partners like CDW, for example, on some of our past projects, and it’s a strategy that has worked well for us.”

Schools cannot afford to put off network modernization, as it can help schools maintain or further support the digital innovations they’ve implemented over the past two years. IT leaders just have to carefully plan for and execute these updates.

Illustration by Ollie Hirst

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