In a COVID World Which Comes First: The Network or the Laptop?

Bob Nilsson Director, Vertical Solutions Marketing Published 28 Aug 2020

Understanding the trade-offs between lighting up parking lots with Wi-Fi, procuring more powerful devices, and upgrading infrastructure. Putting savings on busing costs to good work.

Across the country, cash-strapped technology directors have been forced to make exceedingly difficult decisions about buying devices or updating their networks. And for most districts, there’s the added cost of providing internet connectivity to students who don’t have it at home.

Adam Phyall, Ed.D., director of technology & media services for the Newton County School System in Georgia, had to figure out how to afford updates, devices, and connectivity. Before COVID-19, he was ready to buy Extreme Switches for the new high school that the district was building. Then COVID-19 came to town, the high school project was put on hold, and Phyall’s highest priority was to provide devices and connectivity.

The district was only halfway through its three-year 1:1 plan, so that was expedited. “We grabbed every dollar we could—including CARES funding and Title 1 carryover funds—to buy every student a Chromebook,” says Phyall.

He also spent $300,000 for 1,000 Kajeet hotspots. That wasn’t financially sustainable so he’s been working with cable providers to offer home access plans that the district will pay for. “At this point, internet is essential for more than just schoolwork,” Phyall says. “People are doing telehealth visits and buying groceries online. We need the FCC to look at how E-rate can connect individuals in their homes.”

Phyall also had to find funds to improve connectivity. “We’re putting access points (APs) all over and trying to light up the parking lots, football stadium, and running tracks,” he says. “It doesn’t cost any more money after you set it up, unlike hotspots with a monthly bill. We will need the entire campus to be accessible.”

Luckily for Phyall, he was able to use E-rate to cover some of his needs

Frank Pileiro, supervisor of technology for Linwood Public Schools in New Jersey, wasn’t as fortunate. “We’ve needed new wireless and switches for a while,” he says. “If you have great devices and they can’t connect, that’s no good.”

Pileiro budgeted based on the post-E-rate discounted prices and found a provider that would do the network upgrades at that discounted price, but USAC didn’t deliver his funding commitment letter in time. He didn’t have the additional $40,000 he needed, so he had to postpone the network upgrades.

“I’m at the mercy of the E-rate timing and approvals and am not sure how it will work out. “We need a new firewall, too. It’s a big stressor.”

The pandemic also highlighted the need for devices. Only the students in grades 5 through 8 had a device, so Pileiro used CARES money to buy more Chromebooks for students. But that’s only half the battle. “Our teachers have desktop computers and older Chromebooks we loaned them in the spring.”

Upgrading teachers’ devices is a goal for Eric Butash as well. The edtech director at Foster-Glocester Regional School District in Rhode Island had just upgraded his network before COVID-19 but, once the pandemic sent everyone home, his teachers discovered that their Chromebooks did not have enough horsepower.

“Zoom on Windows is much stronger than on a Chromebook platform. We moved half of our teachers to Dell laptops and bought an additional 100 [Dells] for the incoming freshmen class,” says Butash. To fund the devices, he tapped his regular technology budget and also used leftover money that would have been put to busing and other necessities that were unnecessary during the pandemic.

Like many others, Butash added access points to the outside of buildings and parking lots this summer. “We’re turning all sorts of spaces into classrooms,” he says.

For now, it looks like tech directors will have to determine which needs are most pressing. “Our high school infrastructure was upgraded five years ago and needs a refresh, so we’ll have to put money into that instead of toward our 900 end-of-life iPads that we planned to replace with Chromebooks,” says Eileen Belastock, technology director for Nauset Public Schools in Massachusetts.

Belastock says the key to making these decisions is talking with teachers. “Tech directors need to understand what’s going on in the classrooms to understand the priorities. Can we repurpose devices from computer labs? Are there any alternative solutions?” For the best outcome, talk with your principals and teachers and ask them what they need to accomplish their goals.

Be sure you understand how E-rate can help you with network infrastructure. Download our Essential Guide to E-Rate Success eBook at our E-Rate Resource Center.

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