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School District’s Response to Pandemic Brings Wi-Fi Access to Community

By Thomas Rice, Director of Technology for Bentonville Schools
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Bentonville Schools

When Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson ordered schools to close because of COVID-19, we had one business day to transition more than 18,000 students and some 1,200 teachers to a digital learning platform.

Fortunately, Bentonville Schools uses a 1:1 Chromebook model, but only our older students take their Chromebooks home each evening. This meant distributing 10,000 Chromebooks to our elementary and middle school students. In concert with that effort, our tech team also established a live digital support system staffed by our combined IT and Instructional Technology teams working remotely from home. We answer inquiries via phone or chat Monday through Friday from 7:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m.

While I couldn’t be prouder of our tech teams for responding so quickly, our story doesn’t end there.

Photo Spurs Drive-Up Deployment

After successfully transitioning to online instruction, one of our middle school principals shared a picture with us. It showed students outside their school, huddled together in the rain no less, finishing their assignments. They were using a bleed over signal from the indoor Wi-Fi. Despite our local service providers offering reduced-rate internet access during the pandemic, the cost remains simply out of reach for some.

As a high-achieving academic district, we strive tirelessly to make sure students have the tools needed to succeed. That absolutely includes the 24% of our students who qualify for free and reduced lunch. When we saw that picture, we knew we had to step up.

Because we were already in the early phases of an Aruba Wi-Fi refresh, our existing controllers were unable to support the high-speed outdoor APs required for streaming content. So, we began deployment by configuring the APs in instant mode.

Two schools were implemented when our Aruba team pitched in with welcome news. The company was supplying K-12 districts in need of outdoor Wi-Fi with a turnkey solution, including free use of Aruba Central for six months.

Central accelerated our progress in a big way. We quickly input AP configurations, which our Aruba team optimized for automated provisioning. We continued our installations, positioning each AP to blanket a public-facing parking lot. We broadcast two SSIDs - one for open guest access and the other protected for our staff.

Supporting Students, Teachers & Beyond

This added opportunity drew not only students but teachers and community members. We’ve seen entire families use this service while getting fresh air when weather allows. Teachers who live in rural areas or have slower Internet connections now drive to an outdoor location to securely and safely upload lesson videos.

Since transitioning to a virtual learning environment, our help desk has fielded more than 3,000 support calls and answered chat inquiries in less than an average of nine seconds. We’ve also become a vital resource for our community; families use the wireless connectivity to access state online unemployment benefit sites or get forms for needed assistance programs.

One final benefit. We use our new outdoor Wi-Fi to help with hardware troubleshooting. When a help desk call is insufficient for resolving an issue, we ask parents to connect at their neighborhood school so we can “web tunnel” to their machine. If we determine it’s a hardware issue, we make an appointment for a curbside exchange at our technology center. Whether it’s a student’s Chromebook or a staff member’s laptop, we’ll meet them. We adhere to social distancing mandates and swap their malfunctioning device for a working unit.

Thinking Outside the Box Takes on New Meaning

When I reflect on the lessons of the past six weeks, it’s clear many of us already pictured ourselves as outside-the-box thinkers. But this unprecedented crisis? It set the box on fire. It forced us to more fully embrace a servant-leader mindset. One manifestation for us is changing our IT focus from explaining why we can’t do something to figuring out how to make it happen.

This new ethos resulted in a drive-up Wi-Fi solution that will remain come what may. No matter how education evolves as a consequence of this pandemic, our outdoor Wi-Fi will serve students, family members and the community long after we return to a much anticipated new normal.

Thomas Rice is the Director of Technology for Bentonville Schools, which serves 18,000 urban and rural students. Spread across 142 square miles, the Bentonville, Arkansas district supports 22 campuses that include one pre-K, 11 elementary, four junior high, four middle and two high schools. A member of Bentonville’s executive leadership team, Rice has directed countless technology initiatives over his 20-year career working for K-12 districts. He has also served as a private IT consultant with a focus on primary education.