LOCKHART, TX – For thousands of students and their parents, remote learning was the best option for the beginning of the 2020 school year.
While for many learning from home was the safest option, many faced the difficulties associated with distance learning. Such is the case in Lockhart Independent School District in central Texas.
Lockhart ISD serves just over 6,000 students, with most of them living outside the city limits.
According to the superintendent, the first day of in-person classes went pretty well — with about 45 percent of students inside the walls of his schools.
The remaining 55 percent is currently battling internet issues. Even as the district employed a variety of tactics to help students remain connected, the process has been less than smooth.
"There are a lot of dead spots where there is no access to high-speed internet," said Superintendent Mark Estrada. "We have 850 hotspots that we’ve been giving out to areas without those dead zones."
"A hotspot can’t help if there isn’t at least basic connectivity. It becomes a paperweight," said Estrada. "It did not position us well for distance learning, because many of the kids did not have access."
In order to fix the issue, Lockhart ISD's leadership worked with Particle Communications to create a plan to connect those “dead zones.”
The first step to connect all students to high-speed internet is to secure funding for 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.”
Particle Communications will build towers that will amplify the signal and will maintain the service while 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.”
Particle Communications is based out of New Braunfels and San Angelo. The telecommunications company 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 even as the plan to build the towers moves forward, there are still many challenges faced by the district and its partner.
"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 percent of students with broadband in May to 93 percent that now have access, so we are already reaching a vast majority of our students."
As a stop-gap measure, families who fall in the seven percent who do not have access to broadband are using the hotspots provided by the district. Additionally, 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,” said Shrum. “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.”
According to Shrum and Estrada, they would both like to see 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. The CEO would also 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,” said Estrada. “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?’”