How a Texas district conquered internet dead zones to connect kids
Internet dead zones in Lockhart ISD’s outlying rural communities made handing out Wi-Fi hotspots an ineffectual strategy when the Texas district shifted to online learning after the spring COVID outbreak.
Because 40% of the district’s 6,100 students couldn’t access the internet due to lack of service or financial constraints, administrators this summer decided to partner with a local provider to build cell towers, Superintendent Mark Estrada says.
That local company, Particle Communications, built the towers to carry Lockhart ISD’s Lion Link network to students who have opted to continue with online learning this school year.
“It’s using our bandwidth and content filters,” Estrada says. “Everything is in place to keep kids safe and secure while they’re using the internet just as if they were in our school buildings.”
Engagement in online learning has skyrocketed to 93% this school year, from 64% in May, says Christina Courson, the district’s executive director of communications.
The towers have connected about 700 homes in the 300 square-mile district as about half the district’s students have returned to classrooms while the rest remain remote.
Administrators have also established a bilingual helpline for these families, some of whom have been connected to the internet for the first time, Courson says.
“This is really about access to educational opportunities,” Courson says. “It’s one spoke in the wheel of our district’s focus on identifying and knocking down barriers.”
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The district this year also provided free school supplies to students in pre-K through 12th grade.
Lockhart ISD has used E-rate funds to pay for most of the broadband project and expects the state and county to provide reimbursement for most distance learning costs, Estrada says.
“The internet gap and divide is a national crisis,” he says. “I would hope others are being aggressive in closing that divide.”
DA’s coronavirus page offers complete coverage of the impacts on K-12.
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