K-12 schools implement connectivity solutions to close the homework gap

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Peterson’s story is instructive, but far from unique. More than two and a half years into a global pandemic, school districts continue to struggle with high-speed Wi-Fi and the resulting inequities when students and families can’t get consistent, 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 what is known as the “homework gap” – where some learners unwittingly forfeit access to educational content outside of the traditional school day – a IT principals and their teams are working overtime to deliver instruction and fill learning gaps, especially for at-risk students. Access to reliable broadband remains at the heart of this equation.

How Lynchburg City Schools Are Using CBRS to Connect Students at Home

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

At Lynchburg City Schools in Virginia, IT manager John Collins says the area has strong broadband coverage.

Unfortunately, in a district with 8,000 students, 63% of whom qualify for free and reduced lunch, this coverage is not affordable for many of the community’s most needy families.

“An Internet connection on a smartphone, even if it acts as a hotspot, is not enough,” says Collins, “If you don’t start from the same place, it’s really difficult to climb the ladder at the same pace, even to climb the scale in some cases. And that’s what it’s all about. It’s about giving students what they need so they can grow. At the end of the day, that’s what we’re trying to all to do.

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

Over the years, the district offered a litany of one-time fixes to achieve its goal of providing adequate high-speed Internet access to all students, but these solutions were not sustainable.

To extend broadband coverage to more families and close the long-term homework gap, Collins and the Lynchburg City Schools team recently launched the WISH (Wireless Service at Home) project. Leveraging an unused portion of the Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) spectrum reserved for the U.S. Navy, the district plans to use specially equipped 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 to be commissioned in May 2022, and others will 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 data streaming for students who can’t access Wi-Fi

Although high-speed two-way Wi-Fi remains the gold standard, there are circumstances where this level of access is simply not available or does not make sense for a particular group of learners, such as incarcerated young people or students in difficulty. to reach communities.

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

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

As a workaround, the service center partners 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 as a router, where files are posted and stored.

KEEP READING: K-12 leaders talk about 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 created easily in hours overnight,” he says.

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

Planning is key for schools that rely on government funding

As K-12 schools transition from the particular brand of chaos that defined the smashing innovation of the early months of the pandemic, administrators have begun to focus on early triage toward long-term 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 program designed to help schools and libraries to provide distance learning with the necessary equipment and services – has largely exhausted.

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