How one school district connected (almost) all its students
Only a handful of students remain without reliable, home WiFi access in Colorado’s Boulder Valley School District, where leaders have connected nearly 1,000 families since the coronavirus outbreak closed schools.
The disconnected students live in rugged terrain in remote mountain towns that aren’t covered by most internet signals, says Andrew Moore, the district’s chief information officer.
The district has added routers on school buildings in those communities so students can at least upload and download assignments.
“We still have some kids up there that don’t have internet or don’t have adequate internet,” Moore says. “Inadequate internet is as important to us as no internet because if students can’t stream with their teachers right now, they are not having equitable learning opportunities.”
Like many district leaders, Boulder Valley’s tech team worked quickly when schools closed to identify students who needed access and devices. They reached out to families who hadn’t logged into online learning and worked with area internet service providers to open up hotspots.
But the district’s wider strategy for connecting most of its students to online learning began back in 2015, long before anyone could imagine such widespread disruption in K-12 education.
Expanding free internet service
Five years ago, the digital divide was the emerging crisis in education.
[VIDEO: How Boulder Valley School District fix computers for students while schools are closed.]
It’s also when Moore says he ultimately realized that families could not participate fully in American society without a reliable internet connection—students couldn’t use online educational tools, parents couldn’t look for jobs online, and families couldn’t take advantage of the convenience of e-commerce.
So, that year, Moore and the Boulder Valley School District started a partnership with a wireless company, Denver-based Live Wire Networks, to provide free internet service to students on free- and reduced lunch plans.
The district allowed the company to place internet towers at three of its schools. About 60 students got free service, while the company got the real estate to compete with Comcast and other providers in those neighborhoods, Moore says.
In April, the Boulder Valley expanded the program, called ConnectMe, districtwide. Along with free service for students, the district will get 25% of Live Wire’s revenue, which could bring in about $200,000-$300,000, Moore says.
The company will use the fiber-optic cable that the district installed with bond fonding—and this is where it gets a bit technical. Had the district used e-rate funds to lay the cable, the network would not have been allowed to carry Live Wire’s service because it would’ve competed with private companies, Moore says.
The districts also had to ask voters to allow it to bypass a state law that prevented the school from using its network to provide service outside of its facilities. The HEROES Act, which is awaiting action in the U.S. Senate, would allow districts to avoid similar laws in more than 30 states.
Boulder Valley is also waiting for the FCC to rule on a waiver that would allow school districts to use E-rate funds to lay fiber optic cable that could be used by private companies, Moore says.
Moore recommends that other district leaders reach out now to find local internet service providers who might be willing to partner to provide free service to students in need.
What the district learned about access
When the Boulder Valley’s schools closed in March, the district sent out surveys to find out which students didn’t have internet access. Of course, those emails likely weren’t answered by families without service, Moore says.
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So, teachers and principals worked together to call all the families of students who had not logged into online learning, and the district then found solutions to each individual issue, Moore adds.
For instance, some families were close enough to business districts to connect to public WiFi hotspots. Other families were connected to Comcast’s Internet Essentials program for $9.95 a month. The district also distributed about 100 MiFi hotspots that it acquired from the Boulder public library.
“When we see kids not participating, it’s important to go figure out why,” Moore says. “It may e the internet or there maybe be other things going on with the family that we can help with.”
DA’s coronavirus page offers complete coverage of the impacts on K-12.
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