While schools try and fail to return to ordinary, face-to-face class-time due to the ongoing pandemic, online education continues to be the safest option. But issues such as lack of access to reliable computers and internet stand in the way of that being an equitable solution. Many low-income communities lack the resources to help their own most vulnerable students access that kind of education. Such was certainly the case at the Lower Brule Sioux Reservation in South Dakota.
According to Lower Brule Sioux Reservation Superintendent Lance Witte, fewer than 30 of the reservation’s approximately 300 students have any internet access at home. And the mostly rural school district didn’t have many other options either – no coffee shops, no public library. One church offered free wi-fi for the end of the 2019-2020 school year, but few students lived close enough to access it regularly. For many, the best option was smartphone hotspots, which can get very expensive very quickly, considering how data-heavy virtual classrooms can be. There are also no cellular towers on or near the reservation, making that access flighty.
Over the summer, school authorities investigated better options.
“We realized one of the big things we needed to do is figure out in our community, our rural community out here, we need to figure out how we’re going to get students access to WiFi,” Witte said.
What they came up with was ambitious. The reservation decided to build the first-of-its-kind district wide wireless network, a highspeed data network big and strong enough to cover the entire 207-square-mile reservation. Working with the help of a few nonprofits, some funding from the CARES act, and an organization called MuralNet, the network was broadcasting by July, and now serves more than half of the Lower Brule Sioux Reservation, with expansions soon to come. And all for less than a quarter of a million dollars, most of that the cost to secure the federal licenses for broadcast.