The COVID-19 pandemic had shown how important internet connection is nowadays. Every educational institution thought of only one way to provide continuous learning to students, and that is online learning. Unfortunately, the digital divide has always been a problem in rural and suburban areas. During these unfortunate times, it can be disastrous for every student who has no internet access.
Murray, a small city in Salt Lake County, is facing a hopeful future in having high-speed internet for every student in the area. This would be possible through Murray School District’s own-built network. The internet service would enable the students to freely access the internet during important times like this pandemic. As we all know, reliable internet access has been deemed essential for students to continue their studies.
According to Jason Eyre, also known as “the godfather of Utah’s educational broadband plan”, they started this project in an attempt to provide relief for students who cannot afford to have access to the internet. However, the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and they needed to work more quickly to provide access to the affected students.
The network is already up and running last January 14, 2021. It was said that it would work just like how smartphones connect to the internet wirelessly. A total of 44 towers were installed on roofs to produce the Long-term Evolution (LTE) network. The LTE home network is much faster compared to what the previous technology can offer.
Murray City School District used their coronavirus federal fund in purchasing and engineering high-quality towers that can deliver internet signals farther. This is to provide the apartments and houses of their 6,000 students. They will also be distributing hotspots and receivers to their students, which will be placed on the window of their house. The said network would automatically connect in the Chromebook also given by the district.
The digital divide or homework gap is not only a national problem but a worldwide problem as well. The inequity in education has always been significant because of this unresolved gap. It is heartbreaking to witness how students are slashed away of opportunity to have quality education just because they cannot afford internet access.
Many students from low-income households in Utah are experiencing this inequity. The district can provide them gadgets that would all be useless without an internet connection. Even local libraries and schools with free Wi-Fi were all closed, it did not stop the students from staying in the parking lot to catch a signal.
Sarah Young, Utah Board of Education’s director of strategic initiatives, said that this situation cannot be the solution. Reopening schools will be most unlikely even though most schools in Utah gave their students an option to have face-to-face classes. About 25% of households in Murray have voted to continue with online learning with the fear of coronavirus.
The district has 425 special receivers that can carry the signal from the schools and provide enough Wi-Fi connection, for example, an apartment building. In an attempt to determine where the connection is needed the most, Eyre developed a heat map that shows the households with the lowest income. He then started testing the programs in the reddest areas.
Around 37% of the students in the district are economically disadvantaged, while 13% do not have any form of internet access at their houses. Unfortunately, even households who can afford an internet plan do not get a reliable internet connection all the time. Even though internet service providers are doing an effort to give low-income households an option, it will not be enough for the kids to attend online classes via Zoom or Google Meet.
Utah Education and Telehealth Network (UETN) has also doing efforts to expand internet access across the state. However, they are receiving reports of students climbing hills near their houses to get a decent connection. This desperate call for help is something that needs to be addressed as soon as possible.
Murray’s LTE program will greatly help the affected kids to continue with their studies online. The district’s big step towards fixing the homework gap is an excellent signal for every school district to address this long-time problem. The end goal would be to reproduce what Murray has done to other parts of the state.