RFSD News column: Roaring Fork Schools ensuring students stay connected | PostIndependent.com

RFSD News column: Roaring Fork Schools ensuring students stay connected

Jeff Gatlin
Jeff Gatlin, Roaring Fork Schools

Even before the pandemic, our students relied on computers and internet access at home for 21st century learning, which is why the Roaring Fork Schools have been working to connect all students to internet access for several years.

In 2015, the district piloted a wifi solution, in partnership with the city of Glenwood Springs, that provided free internet access to a low-income neighborhood in Glenwood Springs. While this traditional wifi solution was successful in connecting students in a single neighborhood to internet access, we quickly learned that the type of technology used would not scale to serve large coverage areas.

Fast forward to February 2020 — prior to the massive disruption we were all about to experience due to Covid — we began to explore a new technology called Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) which was recently approved by the FCC. This would allow us to revisit the concept of providing an internet solution to low-income families by creating a private 4G LTE network.

Until recently, this 4G technology (which is used in most cell phones across the country) was exclusive to major cell phone providers. This new technology would allow us to overcome the obstacles we experienced in 2015 by enabling us to provide greater coverage with less equipment. This was really great news. It was still going to take some time to get these networks up and running and serving our families, but a solution was on the horizon.

In April of 2020, we were forced to quickly pivot to supporting remote learning. This sudden shift to a fully online learning model brought a renewed focus and level of importance to ensuring our students had access to reliable internet. While we had an amazing family services and volunteer team engaging with our families who lacked reliable internet access, gaps were still present, and in hindsight, we now realize that many of the internet solutions implemented during the beginning of the pandemic were temporary in nature.

It became clear we would remain in distance learning for the rest of the school year; and yet, some of our students were still not able to access instructional content and learning opportunities at home. At this point in time, it became even more critical to implement a solution that would ensure our students would stay connected and have equitable access to learning.

The work to launch the private LTE networks was under way. Using mapping software, we identified heatmaps where our low-income families live and created coverage areas based on this information. Fully built private LTE networks in these coverage areas would provide service for over 2,000 students.

Even when the Roaring Fork Schools returned to in-person learning in November, our initial goal of ensuring students could access instructional content and materials from home remained a priority with the hope that we could provide a service to families who would benefit from a low-cost internet option. Throughout this school year, our family services team has been reaching out to families who live within the coverage areas to determine if they want to participate in this free service. We are currently providing free internet service to over 40 families, and that number continues to grow weekly.

This project has been made possible through grant funding and collaboration with community partners. To date, we have received $400,000 from the state of Colorado in grant funds to pay for the installation of the infrastructure. Two local partners, Manaus and Aspen Community Foundation, have also provided funds to cover the cost of the wireless modem being installed in each home.

A complex project of this nature wouldn’t be possible without the many other partners who have worked behind the scenes to ensure we have a stable and reliable system in place for our students and families. The city of Glenwood Springs, CEDAR Networks/Ting, town of Carbondale, Crawford Properties, Pitkin County, Sierra Wireless, and Vall Technologies have all made invaluable contributions to this project and have helped ensure there are no costs passed on to our students and families.

It’s well known at this point that the pandemic has highlighted existing inequities and, in some areas, exacerbated inequities. That’s especially true when it came to internet access. Thankfully, the Roaring Fork Schools had been working on closing the internet access gap long before the pandemic so that we were able to respond when this new technology became available.

There’s still work to be done to connect all families to reliable internet access, but every week the access gap is narrowing, and more students are able to access and continue learning at home.

Jeff Gatlin in Chief Operating Officer for the Roaring Fork Schools in Glenwood Springs, Carbondale and Basalt.

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