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How Cisco Helped K-12 Districts Tackle the Digital Divide

The tech company partnered with schools in Colorado and Texas during the pandemic to expand Internet access needed for virtual learning, a main concern of educators during the public health crisis.

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Oscar Rico, tech director at Canutillo Independent School District in Texas, speaks at Thursday's Cisco webinar.
Ensuring student connectivity during virtual and hybrid learning has been among the most pressing concerns for K-12 schools throughout the pandemic. And as they continue to grapple with digital inequity hindering student participation, districts have looked to public-private partnerships to help narrow the digital divide.

Though millions of students have returned to in-person learning, the push toward digital learning that was catalyzed during COVID-19 school closures will continue after the public health crisis, according to Renee Patton, global education director who spoke Thursday at a webinar hosted by Cisco.

“One of the things that we know is that the future of learning is going to be hybrid,” Patton said during a roundtable discussion about the digital divide. “Some estimates that we have show that 30 percent of administrative staff will not go back into the office across all industries.”

As schools continued their year-long exodus from pen-and-paper learning, the tech giant partnered recently with Texas-based Canutillo Independent School District and Colorado-based St. Vrain Valley School District, where administrators struggled to connect students with teachers.

About 70 percent of families in the Canutillo district lacked Internet access at the beginning of the crisis, when officials poured nearly $5 million into devices for students, according to the district’s website. Noting the need, officials piloted a program with Cisco last year to establish a secure, private Wi-Fi network for families without reliable Internet.

Using a combination of tools such as Cisco Ultra-Reliable Wireless Backhaul and switches, the company helped create the distributed network to expand Wi-Fi access for about 6,000 students. According to the district’s website, the push toward universal connectivity, dubbed the “Canutillo Connect” initiative, was put into action last summer after local education officials approved $300,000 for the program.

The push for devices and connectivity represented a major hurdle for the district made up of many first-generation American citizen students, according to Oscar Rico, the district’s tech director.

“Really, our systems had not changed much since the 1920s until 2020, when it wasn't by choice that we had to change,” he said during the webinar.

“Our history shows that sometimes we go out of our way to exclude people from certain access, and one of them is to education,” he later said of the need for such a program. “I couldn't fall asleep without thinking I’m the one at the gates - I'm the one at that school gate with the National Guard saying, ‘Hey, you can’t come into this virtual school.’”

Rico said the partnership helped to open those gates, which started to pay off in terms of student performance.

“The return on investment immediately that we had was the highest graduating class that we had seen, because kids were not losing credit due to non-attendance,” he noted.

As Rico’s district worked to provide Wi-Fi for its students, St. Vrain officials trained teachers how to use Webex, Cisco's video conferencing platform used by some schools for virtual instruction and learning. The district went from a few dozen Webex meetings a week to an average of over 100,000 a month, according to officials.

To build upon these efforts, Cisco partnered with St. Vrain last spring to provide 10 free Wi-Fi hot spots families can drive to for Internet access. The partnership now works in tandem with a $1.3 million state grant program to expand high-speed Internet access throughout the system of about 33,000 students.

Chief Technology Officer Michelle Bourgeois said the Cisco partnership played a crucial role in the early formation of the district’s digital equity policies in a district covering more than 400 square miles, where many rural and low-income families have little Internet access.

“Now, every student in our district has the opportunity to join [dual enrollment courses] to take that credit and apply it to their college,” she said of the benefits of the Wi-Fi program.

Bourgeois said the Wi-Fi access points will remain for hundreds of students enrolled in virtual courses next year.
Brandon Paykamian is a staff writer for Government Technology. He has a bachelor's degree in journalism from East Tennessee State University and years of experience as a multimedia reporter, mainly focusing on public education and higher ed.