Mark Estrada, superintendent of Lockhart Independent School District, says the first day of in-person classes went pretty well considering the COVID-19 pandemic—with about 45% of students inside the walls of his schools.
But he said the outlook wasn’t as positive for some of the students who face challenges in remote learning.
Our school district is 300 square miles, and the majority of our kids live outside the city proper. There are a lot of dead spots where there is no access to high-speed internet. We have 850 hotspots that we’ve been giving out to areas without those dead zones.Mark Estrada
A hotspot can’t help if there isn’t at least basic connectivity. It becomes a paperweight. It did not position us well for distance learning, because many of the kids did not have access.
Enter Particle Communications and a plan to connect those “dead zones” and help out some of the 6,100 K-12 students in the Texas district, where the decision to learn in person or remotely is up to the parents.
If You Build It, They Can Learn
Lockhart ISD’s leadership knew it was time to go further and find ways to connect all students directly to high-speed internet. So, they started looking at funding the construction of cell towers.
“We partnered with Particle Communications and asked for a 10-year commitment to our district—ensuring that the investment we made in that infrastructure has a long-term return,” said Estrada. “We also can ensure that students are on a secure network because we are utilizing our district internet, which includes filters and all the protections that you’d expect for kids.”
Essentially, Particle Communications is building the towers that will amplify the signal and will maintain the service; the school district provides the network.
“Our role is to act as last-mile network transport and as tech support for network connections at student and faculty houses,” said Chris Shrum, CEO, Particle Communications. “There were four students at the very first house where we installed the school’s internet service, and the number keeps growing.”
The telecommunications company, which is based out of San Angelo and New Braunfels, Texas, has committed to connecting 500 homes in this first wave of work.
“They’re using the entire school district as the network boundary and are able to continue using E-rate funds to provide internet to all their students,” said Shrum. “We install the infrastructure, which are the towers and the private networking into a student’s home, and then we tie it into the school district’s network. The district provides devices in the classroom and at home, and we make sure the network is ready for them and working.”
But it takes time to connect all those households to towers—and there have been challenges.
“I understand there is a shortage of labor that impacted the timeline for completion of the 500 in-home installations, and two towers are still under construction that we had hoped to have completed prior to the start of this school year,” said Christina Courson, Executive Director of Communications, Lockhart ISD. “Even with these delays, the district has already closed the gap from only 65% of students with broadband in May to 93% that now have access, so we are already reaching a vast majority of our students.”
As a stop-gap measure, many of the 7% who are still without broadband are using the hotspots Superintendent Estrada mentioned, and the school district’s staff is now using two of its own IT personnel to help with installations.
It’s a challenging time because we need a whole lot of internet right now. The internet is no longer just a fun option that some people get and some people don’t; all of us need it. With Lockhart ISD, we are building a network that is robust enough to last 10 years. Providers need resources and funding to build networks that have long-term viability for every community.Chris Shrum
Both Shrum and Estrada would like to see some regulatory changes to the federal E-rate program, which funds internet connectivity projects within schools. Shrum says the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which oversees the program, needs to make it easier for small providers to navigate, and the superintendent would like to see a focus on reaching students where they are.
Estrada says that “internet access is no longer a luxury. It’s something that every kid should be provided with.”
“I see it as a basic utility. It’s not just a health pandemic that creates the need for remote learning—so does the weather and other issues that cause absences or missed school days,” he said. “Having this infrastructure gives school districts options to keep teaching and learning.
“And think about this—some kids might have a fever or a headache and might not even have COVID-19, but we can’t let them come to school. So every one of us must ask, ‘How can we educate a generation of kids while living in a society where even a sneeze now causes concern?’”