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Texas School District Gets Creative to Close Digital Divide

Like many public school districts with limited resources, Duncanville ISD officials had to think creatively to tackle the digital divide amid the pandemic.

The back end of a school bus.
Duncanville ISD has joined other districts in bringing Internet access to students' homes with it's 'Wi-Fi on Wheels' initiative.
Duncanville ISD
Duncanville Independent School District, based in Duncanville, Texas, recently utilized four school buses outfitted with Internet transmitters as part of its “Wi-Fi on Wheels” initiative to provide access to families without reliable service.

The need to facilitate connectivity was the latest in a slew of obstacles the district has had to tackle since the pandemic forced many students to continue their studies remotely nearly a year ago.

Superintendent Marc Smith said the first hurdle in closing the digital divide was making sure students had a device to connect to the Internet in the first place. About 82 percent of the district’s 12,800 students are considered economically disadvantaged. Many of those students didn’t have the devices necessary for virtual learning.

“Prior to COVID, we were not a district that had one device per student, so we had a sense of our digital divide and our technology challenges,” he said. “Once COVID hit, it really exposed just how great this digital divide was in our district.”

But Duncanville’s operational funds were unable to cover the cost of providing new devices. This led the district to dip into its fund balance to purchase nearly $3 million worth of devices, including laptops, iPads and Wi-Fi hot spots. The district also reached out to the Texas Education Agency, which provided about $300,000 in grant funds.

“Parents just aren’t able to afford another bill,” Smith said. “Because of the population that we serve, we definitely had to tap into that fund balance and seek every other opportunity from the state to close that gap as quickly as possible.”

With demand high, it took a few months for all of the devices to arrive. The district was eventually able to provide over 6,000 devices to students in need, but district surveys indicated connectivity still remained an issue.

So much money had already been poured into purchasing devices. Like many districts, Duncanville had to find a creative way to bring the Internet to students’ homes aside from extending Wi-Fi range outside of its campuses.

“We knew at some point, we were going to have to get creative and figure out ways to address that deficit in our district,” Smith said.

Duncanville ISD Network Engineer Brandonn Thomas said Wi-Fi on Wheels was part of a “multi-pronged approach” to extend the district’s Wi-Fi footprint and supplement the limited hot spots at their disposal.

“It’s a different challenge to now shift that support model mid-flight with limited staff,” he noted.

Duncanville is just one of many districts that's used buses to bring Wi-Fi to underserved communities. Smith said it's an example of how districts with limited resources have had to find ways to adapt. Despite the circumstances, Smith welcomed the challenge. 

“It’s pushed us to be creative and look for different ways to think outside the box, and that’s a good thing,” he said.

Facilitating remote learning isn’t just all about devices and Internet service, however. Students often rely on help from parents to navigate virtual learning platforms. Many parents simply aren't always available to provide that support, according to Smith.

“We’re still very early in aggregating all of the data, but several homes I’ve been in and others who’ve shared [their experiences] with me have had similar stories — that it was just really a challenge for parents to do their work but also support their kids with technology,” Smith said.

Shortly after the launch of Wi-Fi on Wheels, Duncanville administrators worked to identify students who were chronically absent or failing their courses. Last week, district volunteers and staff members began visiting about 100 students, sometimes to assist students with issues they have encountered through virtual learning.

Smith said part of the goal was to reconnect with students. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, children’s social, emotional and mental well-being has been impacted by the pandemic, often making it difficult to stay on task.

“We weren’t seeing them log on continuously. They were having lots of absences and maybe not passing their coursework, with multiple failing grades,” Smith said. “The effort was to target the most critical students based on our data.”

These efforts have increased the workload placed upon administrators and staff, which will likely change expectations moving forward.

“It speaks to their commitment and it speaks to their willingness to do what educators do, and that is looking for ways to make a difference for the young people we’re responsible for,” Smith said.

“The virtual learning environment is going to be with us, I think, forever now,” he later added.

As a district staff member and parent of a high school sophomore, Thomas said his biggest takeaway from the past year has been the district’s willingness to adapt to shifting paradigms. He believes this will have implications for how schools are expected to deliver content in the years ahead.

“I think it has completely shifted what we thought we were capable of, both as facilitators and technology professionals,” he said. “There are things we didn’t think we could do that now we know we can do.”

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.