A simmering demand for reliable connectivity in education turned to a boil during the pandemic when the digital divide–something that many under-connected communities were already facing–exploded. This was felt drastically as the pivot to remote learning exposed a widening gap between students who have access to high-speed internet compared to those who do not.
While there are hopeful signs that the pandemic is waning, schools will continue to rely on solutions that support flexible learning moving forward. From extreme weather knocking districts offline to students trying to stay in the loop when they are stuck at home sick, consistent connectivity is a staple for today’s modernized “pencil box.” It ensures students have access to the resources they need–no matter the circumstances.
With a new school year approaching, and the education sector forever changed in the shadow of the pandemic, there is a growing expectation among students, parents, and government institutions to be better prepared for the future. But preparing for the unexpected is easier said than done. So just how can school districts ready themselves to ensure consistent and reliable connectivity no matter what?
The key to making it happen is to understand the value of emerging technologies and approaches that support enhanced connectivity, such as Private Cellular Networks (PCNs), and leverage the right relief programs that can support investments in these types of solutions to close the digital divide. Only then can schools begin to lay the foundation of reliable connections that students need to combat this growing divide in the face of any unforeseen challenge.
Meeting the Growing Demand for Reliable Connectivity
The pandemic revealed a number of reasons why education needs to be flexible, especially considering the limits that come with relying solely on in-person learning. As we look towards the future, schools will need to invest in connected technologies that allow this flexibility to exist.
PCNs are one example of an approach to connectivity that can provide long-term opportunities for schooling. PCNs offer flexible connectivity over wide distances with better network performance and predictable bandwidth costs. It’s a new way to deliver consistent, high-performance internet access that is ideally suited for remote or hybrid learning.
PCNs are more flexible, reliable, and secure by nature, allowing teachers and students to continue to work uninterrupted. This eliminates dependence on home connections such as DSL, cable, or personal hotspots and allows internet access from anywhere. Adding to this, the PCN routers deployed within student homes are managed through a friendly cloud interface, making it easier for IT staff to operate and troubleshoot remotely. This means they don’t have to worry about supporting home users, and parents won’t be challenged with setting up networks for their children to access work online.
Whether it be a sick day, snow day, or any other obstacle that prevents a student from getting to the classroom, PCNs allow them to connect to the education resources they need while at home. Plus, even without any disasters or challenges, PCNs provide reliability for more normal day-to-day activities, like connecting online to do an assignment or viewing a school sporting event from home.
Overcoming Financial Obstacles to Connectivity
While many districts across the country can see the value of investing in enhanced connectivity solutions, the technology may seem out of reach to some, especially to those with limited funding or overall resources. But thanks to a growing list of government programs, there are emerging opportunities for schools to reap the benefits of enhanced connectivity.
Many schools look to the federal E-Rate program for guidance. E-Rate provides discounts for telecommunications and internet access to eligible schools. Programs like this can play a significant role in not only closing the current digital divide but preventing it from expanding in light of any unanticipated challenges in the future.
Adding to this, there is the American Rescue Plan Act (ARP) of 2021, a $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package with $7.1 billion earmarked for the Emergency Connectivity Fund (ECF). The ECF provides “funding for schools and libraries for the purchase, during the coronavirus (COVID- 19) pandemic, connected devices and broadband connections for use by students, school staff, and library patrons.” More specifically, this funding has been set aside for remote teaching and learning at locations other than schools and libraries. The FCC has elected to distribute the fund through a process similar to the E-Rate application system.
Utah’s Murray City School District (MCSD) is a great example of how institutions can leverage these types of programs to invest in high-bandwidth technologies. Fueled by grant funding and partnerships through the CARES Act, MCSD became one of the first school districts in the nation to create and launch its own PCN in January 2021.
The pandemic highlighted the feasibility of remote learning. In fact, many schools will continue relying on distance learning as they adopt hybrid and flexible models for the future. E-Rate can help support schools as they adapt to these changing circumstances by providing them with the proper funds for digital technologies, connecting students and teachers to the information they need.
Enhanced Connectivity: An Expectation, Not a Request
It’s been estimated that in the Spring of 2020, more than 15 million public school students did not have home access to either an internet connection or a device adequate enough for distance learning. This underscored the already growing digital divide, highlighting the importance of reliable, secure, and effective connectivity within the education system.
While we can all hope to avoid another pandemic of this magnitude, there will always be another challenge or unexpected event to prepare for, not to mention a growing need for flexible learning in a modern era. For these reasons, schools need to be prepared to invest in the technology and programs that allow just that. This means reliable connectivity is no longer just a nice to have, but an expectation for the future of education and a way of bringing to an end the digital divide to provide equal opportunities for everyone.
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