A school district has created wireless infrastructure to ensure low-income households have reliable internet access during COVID-19. Student success and community engagement came next.
- COVID-19 has strained school systems to quickly offer distance learning options by March 2020.
- Some 70% of students in the Canutillo Independent School District did not have internet access at home, further compounding the digital divide in the region.
- By leveraging Cisco’s wireless infrastructure, the district not only enabled distance learning, but also laid the groundwork for a truly digital educational environment and greater community inclusion.
As COVID-19 swept the world in 2020, education systems needed to adapt in the blink of an eye and allow students to learn remotely.
But while distance learning was difficult for average households, low-income households were disproportionately affected by poor internet connectivity.
“The children did not show up to school. They had no way to connect, ”said Oscar Rico, executive director of technology, Canutillo Independent School District in El Paso, Texas.
Indeed, 70% of students in the district did not have reliable internet access at home, further compromising educational opportunities during a pandemic. Many children only had a hotspot connection through their smartphones rather than a connected computer.
“A lot of them had cellular devices that spit out an access point and that access point was shared by students and parents in the home,” Rico said.
Rico, himself an immigrant from Mexico, noted that the education of these low-income students was likely to suffer disproportionately during COVID-19 without reliable internet access. Access was no longer a good but a condition for academic success.
“This pandemic has made parents realize that their children need the Internet. “
A recent study also indicates that even though households have access to the Internet, the quality of access continues to bridge the digital divide for underserved communities.
“The good news is that access has exploded,” said Vikki Katz, associate professor in the School of Communication and Information at Rutgers University, and co-author of a June study on the digital access in an EducationWeek article. “The bad news is that the proportion of under-connected families has not budged.
Wireless infrastructure enables distance learning during COVID-19
As the district explored its options for building a wireless infrastructure, it considered CBRS technology, or Broadband radio service for citizens.
But CBRS technology – which provides MHz of spectrum in the 3550 MHz to 3700 MHz range in the United States – was prohibitively expensive.
“It was going to be an astronomical recurring burden,” said Rico, to install CBRS throughout the county.
Instead, the district deployed a combination of wireless technologies to connect students reliably and securely.
Using the school’s network signal, the district transmits that signal to Cisco’s highly reliable wireless link antennas via Power over Ethernet switching. This connectivity is then transmitted to a Cisco Meraki access point and returned to the school’s ISP network.
“This is the same control I would have within the four walls of the school to ensure the privacy and safety of the children,” said Rico.
This architecture also enables new forms of distance learning through classroom cameras.
“Now that we had the infrastructure to support it, we purchased robotic classroom cameras that have markers that follow teachers and are not intrusive to teaching,” Rico said: “Children being absent, they can either attend live in the classroom via these remote controls. cameras; [and] those same remote cameras also record instructions, ”so the kids can attend a class later, he added. The cameras also help teachers observe other teachers’ best practices during lessons and also allow children to access tutoring remotely.
Rico is also building a network architecture which may require even more bandwidth in the future; today, the district is equipped for 1 Gigabit Ethernet, but in the not too distant future, new capacities could require 25 Gigabit Ethernet.
For example, Rico wants to digitize all activities in the classroom, including student worksheets, tests, and of course, video streaming of classroom instruction. This requires cloud-based options to host the district learning management system.
Likewise, many historical documents are on paper and the district wishes to support sustainability. “I want to be a green neighborhood in the sense that we no longer fill out applications on paper. “
“The sky is the limit for this project,” said Rico. With a truly digital platform, students have “the opportunity to be successful in anything,” Rico said.
Digitization brings results, engagement and inclusiveness
The new hybrid formats for courses have sparked further changes that promote inclusion of the community as a whole, including parents.
School board meetings, for example, can now be broadcast in English and Spanish. This allowed households to attend the board meeting of the time and language preference.
Parent-teacher meetings are now possible via video so parents don’t have to attend a 9am meeting in person. “We went from three parents to 36 and had to open separate sessions just to keep up with parental involvement.”
Student attendance rates have increased for the district, Rico said, from 96% to 9%.
The jury is out on the overall benefits of distance learning, of course. According to a Washington Post article from 2021, many school districts have experienced spikes in failure, especially for English learners and other vulnerable students.
But ultimately, hybrid educational options can help support students. Indeed, at the college level, hybrid formats have proven to be more effective than teaching exclusively online or exclusively in the classroom.
Video instruction can also provide an important safeguard for students with different learning styles or students learning English.
“For me, it’s always been about fairness,” Rico said.