Innovative Solutions Help Lockhart ISD Connect Their Students
Lockhart Independent School District (ISD) is a small school district about a half-hour south of Austin, Texas. The school district has nine schools and 6,200 students, 75% of whom qualify for free or reduced lunch. At the start of the 2019-2020 school year, Lockhart ISD estimated about half of their students lacked home Internet access.
When COVID-19 hit, school district leaders had already been considering options to provide home Internet access to students in the more rural parts of the district. Adam Galvan, Assistant Superintendent of Operations & Technology, had been working with teachers over the past several years to get technology buy-in from the ground up, starting with investing in devices and professional development. Suddenly the need became much more acute. The school district got into gear quickly so that every student would be able to continue learning remotely.
As a short-term solution, the district redirected school wireless access points towards the parking lots, so that parents and students could more easily access the connection from their cars. But for the longer term, they hoped to identify a solution to make sure that students in need could gain access to filtered CIPA-compliant Internet access at home. They also wanted a solution that would make it easy for student Chromebooks to flexibly connect to the school’s network at home, and when students come back to school.
IDENTIFY THE PROBLEM
To start, teachers and staff led calling campaigns to determine which students needed a dedicated device for remote learning and what level of Internet or cellular service they had at home. It was a multi-faceted effort – to increase the response rate and get the information they needed, they also sent paper surveys, and principals even drove to some student homes.
Though the data collection effort yielded a lower response rate than they’d hoped for, the district’s survey showed that roughly 40% of students lacked Internet access at home, an understanding that they would continue to refine as student responses trickled in over time.
The school district then uploaded family addresses into Google Maps to view where families with limited or no service were located and found that dead zones in rural areas needed the most urgent attention. As is common in many rural areas, there were a limited number of providers, terrain challenges, spotty service, and high costs that were out of range for many of the families in the district.
Because COVID-19 was declared an emergency by FEMA, Lockhart ISD was able to forgo the usual lengthy procurement process. In accordance with local procurement laws, they worked to identify potential connectivity solutions and found three options: personal hotspots, a private LTE solution, and a point-to-point Wi-Fi solution through a local wireless ISP.
The school district evaluated all three solutions and determined that the local WISP’s leased wireless towers would be their most cost-effective option over the long-term. While personal hotspots would have been relatively quick and easy to deploy, the cost of maintaining the service and data packages would have exceeded the other options in just a few years. The cellular tower option would have been on district property and enabled coverage over a three-mile radius, with a limit of 750 students connected. With the leased towers, the district could expect to take advantage of seven towers, connecting up to 1000 students over an eight-mile radius. After presenting at their school board, they achieved buy-in from the group and secured the funding and go-ahead to proceed with the project.
To make it work, the district had to cut back funding from some areas in order to prioritize this project. After a series of budget reallocations, they were able to fit it within the existing budget by rebalancing budgets from operations, technology services, and maintenance. While E-rate rules don’t currently allow funding for connectivity outside of school grounds, the district is hopeful the rules will be adapted to support remote learning. As of June 2020, there are several pieces of legislation at various stages of discussion that would open up these sorts of projects to Universal Service Funding, whether through E-rate or another of the Fund’s programs.
In partnership with the local ISP, Lockhart ISD is building a private Wide Area Network (WAN) that is connected to the district’s filtered, CIPA-compliant network so that students can sign on securely to their school account using their Chromebooks at home. They are setting up several telecommunication towers throughout the community in order to reach the family homes using long-distance Wi-Fi technologies. This will give them eight miles of coverage, enabling them to provide Internet service to 500 students at no cost to their families.
For families that sign up, the installation will include a radio, 50ft – mast, antenna, and wireless router at each home. The district found that an additional benefit of working with the provider was not having to take ownership of the towers – meaning the district technology team won’t have to shoulder the burden of maintenance or troubleshooting.
Based on usage data and testing, the school district determined that 10 Mbps download and 5 Mbps upload speeds would be enough bandwidth for students to be able to do their school work. The bandwidth amount is changeable if needed, and content filtering limits access to the same websites students have access to while in school. The home wireless router also allows two SSIDs on each wireless device, so other devices in the home are able to connect to the service without interfering with the student’s primary device.
CONNECTING STUDENTS AT HOME
With their deployment actively underway, the district has successfully connected its first student home. In addition to getting their unconnected students online, Lockhart deployed 3,600 leased devices to both students and staff in just one day the first week their schools closed due to COVID-19.
With its sights set on the fall, the goal over the summer is to connect an additional 700 family homes by August. The district’s leadership hopes that this ambitious project will prepare them for whatever forms of reopening or distance learning may be required in the next school year.
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