4 best practices for more equitable internet access

What school district leaders can do to find out which families and educators still need reliable tech access points and then help those households to connect in the new school year
By: | August 5, 2020
FULFILLING THE NEED—Educators in Wake County, N.C., identified about 10,000 students who lacked internet access. Activate Good, a local nonprofit, stepped up. A team of 140 community volunteers worked alongside 70 district staff volunteers to get more than 10,000 AT&T Wi-Fi hotspots prepped for distribution to students’ homes.FULFILLING THE NEED—Educators in Wake County, N.C., identified about 10,000 students who lacked internet access. Activate Good, a local nonprofit, stepped up. A team of 140 community volunteers worked alongside 70 district staff volunteers to get more than 10,000 AT&T Wi-Fi hotspots prepped for distribution to students’ homes.

Whether a district is open to in-person learning at the start of the school year or not, educators are preparing for the strong possibility that this year will include at least some period of distance learning for all. That means a need to continue taking action to ensure every household has access to the internet.

“The biggest barrier districts face when preparing for the fall is making sure that all students have access to online learning with a dedicated device at home,” says Strategic Problem Solver and Team Leader Jack Lynch of EducationSuperHighway, a nonprofit that connects American public schools to high-speed internet. “It is crucial that schools work toward regaining the millions of hours of learning that were lost in the past few months and to deliver online learning to all students.”

Here are four practices for finding out who is without home internet access and fulfilling that need.

1. Be wary of surveys

At the start of the pandemic, many districts sent surveys to families to identify which students needed web-enabled devices, but they received mixed results or only heard back from 30 percent or less.   

“Families get surveyed all the time, especially in the last few months, so there are many who are feeling survey fatigue,” says Lynch.

Districts that have the resources or the manpower can call families directly or physically visit them at home while practicing social distancing. Meanwhile, school leaders with a student information system that supports customization can change the default data fields to categorize student information based on whether certain families have devices at home.

In North Carolina, the Wake County Public Schools System had not gone 1-to-1 by the time the pandemic struck, so administrators reached out to families to identify where to send available devices for use during the closure.

“We will have to change our language going forward when asking whether families have a device or not because many who said ‘Yes’ did not necessarily have access for the entire day,” says Chief Technology Officer Marlo Gaddis. “We found out very quickly that some families only had old computers that had not been updated or, for households with numerous children, only had one device for all of them, which became a scheduling nightmare as teachers tried to schedule Google Meets with their students,” adds Gaddis, who shared strategies for narrowing the digital divide in classrooms and homes at FETC 2020.

2. Purchase solutions on behalf of families

Many districts have worked to connect families with internet or hotspot providers for free or inexpensive services. “But most programs are super difficult to navigate for families,” says Lynch. “Some providers communicate through snail mail, request information that many families are hesitant to provide such as social security numbers or offer discounts that families still can’t afford or will not prioritize over food, for example.”

School districts can make purchases on behalf of all families and aggregate the demand using various strategies. “If you are a single buyer for many households, companies can usually provide better rates and streamline the process,” says Lynch.

3. Rely more on internal teams

K-12 leaders who decide to take the initiative by collaborating with solution providers or government entities should still be wary.

Vallecitos School District, a small rural school system outside of San Diego with limited access to networks and cell towers, needed stronger Wi-Fi and broadband for students and teachers when the governor closed schools. The district did not immediately purchase any equipment since the state had promised to deliver supplies promptly to rural districts. But those supplies never arrived.

Luckily, the district had already set up access points at various outside locations, including on the property of a teacher who originally did not have internet. “One of my teachers only had so much bandwidth she could use, so she began driving to a mountaintop where she did have access and worked out of her car,” says Superintendent Maritza Koeppen. “Eventually she ended up coming to the campus and working out of her classroom.”

Another teacher who had originally planned on installing internet at her home once she retired had to start the process earlier. “Installing the internet took her awhile since the company didn’t want to send their representatives into people’s houses, so she had to set it up herself,” says Koeppen.

Koeppen also spent a lot of time setting up hotspots from a provider she later realized didn’t offer them for free. She made sure to find out the costs immediately from the next vendor she selected. Her choice provides three months of free access, which began in time for the fall.

4. Prioritize initiatives 

At the beginning of the pandemic, many districts adopted free solutions to help with the transition to online learning as well as to improve instruction in this new environment. But this created more challenges for many districts, including Santa Fe Public Schools.

“The influx of new technology was overwhelming since it required a ton of coordination, which distracted us from finishing the projects to help keep the lights on like getting the LMS set up,” says Chief Information and Strategy Officer Thomas Ryan, who spoke on the topic of leading effective change during DA’s FETC 2020 event.

“Districts need to create a high-level governance team that prioritizes every new initiative and reprioritizes existing practices,” he adds. “This might involve pausing processes that might have been crucial before the pandemic if they do not help with creating successful strategies for the fall.”

Steven Blackburn is an associate editor at DA.

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