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Limited access to internet, technology leads Marlin ISD to invest in devices for all students

Limited access to internet, technology leads Marlin ISD to invest in devices for all students

From the Rural broadband struggles in Central Texas series
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The internet went down at Velvin Lewis’ Marlin home less than a week before her two children must start online instruction in the Marlin Independent School District.

Her service provider, AT&T, told her no one would be able to come out to fix the problem until Monday, the day her sixth grade and 11th grade students join their classmates and teachers in Marlin ISD’s Virtual Learning Academy, which all students must attend for the first two weeks of school.

Lewis wishes another option were available in her area, but only AT&T offers wired broadband internet service in Marlin, according to several Marlin families and BroadbandNow.com.

Broadband internet service is notoriously spotty in Marlin and the rest of Falls County, a rural Central Texas county of about 17,297 people.

About 56% of households in the Marlin ISD attendance zone pay for broadband internet, while 43% of residents in the city itself subscribe to the same service, according to Connected Nation, a public-private consortium that maps internet access.

Even with broadband internet, the average speed test result in Marlin is 6.26 megabits per second, and the top download speeds recorded for AT&T average 18.24 Mbps, significantly slower than the 100 Mbps advertised by AT&T and the current federal benchmark of 25 Mbps to qualify as broadband, according to BroadbandNow.com. The website helps people find and compare internet service providers in their area, under the mission that “broadband internet should be available to all.”

Applying the federal speed guidelines, the service reports 98.87% of Marlin households have no broadband internet access.

That is why Lewis picked up hotspots from Marlin ISD on Thursday afternoon, during a drive-thru registration and school supply distribution event at both the middle and high school campuses. Both her students will continue with remote instruction after the two-week transition period on the Virtual Learning Academy, and she wants to ensure they are able to do their schoolwork.

Teachers, principals and volunteers in yellow and royal purple T-shirts and face masks — the Marlin Bulldog colors — stood outside in the 105-degree heat Thursday, welcoming families and passing out Chromebooks, hotspots and other school supplies.

Alisha Nett and her son, Aaron Young, picked up the seventh grader’s school supplies Thursday afternoon, including a hotspot that will allow Aaron to complete his schoolwork during the two weeks of remote instruction. Nett said often her family cannot watch Netflix and use their cellphones at the same time, which is not viable for her son’s schoolwork. They requested the hotspot so Aaron will have consistent internet access to complete his lessons.

“I just want him to have a successful school year,” Nett said.

Marlin ISD is providing all school supplies for all of its 880 students this school year, Superintendent Darryl Henson said.

Soon, the school district that has failed state academic standards since 2011, longer than any other Texas school district, will become a 1:1 district, providing Chromebook devices for all students in second grade and above.

The district has been under threat of closure by the Texas Education Agency for the past five years, and the state installed an appointed board of directors in place of the elected school board in 2017. As part of a district improvement plan that year, the new board approved a $53,000 batch of Chromebooks for middle school students. Now, under the leadership of a new superintendent, the coronavirus pandemic is leading the district to provide similar resources, and more, for all students.

When the state shut down schools in the spring, teachers struggled to keep students engaged with remote instruction because all Marlin ISD could offer at the time were paper packets for students, Henson said.

But things are going to be different this school year.

Hired by the state-appointed board of managers in the midst of the pandemic, Henson immediately got to work in late May by recruiting and retaining administrators and buying 384 Chromebook devices. Marlin ISD spent $109,234 on the computers, with a state coronavirus relief fund chipping in $68,532.

Additionally, the school district decided in the spring to participate in T-Mobile’s EmpowerEd program to buy heavily discounted hotspots and unlimited data plans to provide 250 LTE wireless internet connections for eligible Marlin ISD households at a cost of about $44,000, Henson said. Marlin ISD qualified for the program in part because most of its students, or about 84%, are considered economically disadvantaged.

The Texas Education Agency’s Operation Connectivity will reimburse Marlin ISD for half the cost of the hotspots, about $22,000. Through that same state program, the school district is buying 126 more Chromebook devices and 100 more hotspots for $23,931 to extend the 1:1 initiative to second grade and up, Henson said.

Operation Connectivity is a program established in May to help Texas school districts receive discounts with Microsoft, Intel, T-Mobile and other leading technology companies, Texas Monthly reported. Gov. Greg Abbott and the TEA devoted $200 million to split the costs with school districts, which had requested more than 1 million computers and 480,000 hotspots, as of the Aug. 11 report.

The state has about 5.5 million public school students, and the TEA estimates that between 950,000 and 1.9 million students need access to high speed internet and between 1.1 million and 1.6 million students need a dedicated learning device, based on school district surveys and U.S. Census American Community Survey data.

In addition to purchasing student devices, Marlin ISD is working to upgrade its Wi-Fi, using a federal program that provides schools with discounts to buy $55,491 worth of Wi-Fi access points and $36,988 worth of associated infrastructure improvements needed to support them, such as wiring, network switches and power supplies that will not be interrupted, Henson said.

Marlin schools have better internet service than most of the city because the campuses are located along State Highway 6, which is a “main trunk fiber line that connects Waco to College Station and beyond,” Technology Director Adam LeJeune said. The school district had recently upgraded its internet to commercial 1-gigabit-per-second fiber from 100 Mbps, under the same federal program that provides qualifying schools with a 90% discount on internet service.

“Our challenges for the community are limited true broadband availability to homes and potential saturation of our cellular infrastructure during peak load times, which is one reason why we elected to follow the TEA’s guidance for asynchronous instruction,” LeJeune said.

The district hopes that by allowing students to work at different times instead of being online at a certain time, interacting live with a teacher, and providing the hotspots to families will allow students doing remote instruction the “mobility and flexibility to complete their at-home assigned work with minimal frustration stemming from the lack of community infrastructure,” LeJeune said.

“These expenditures are 100% devoted to the students and families of Marlin ISD,” Henson said. “The extra purchases and decisions we made due to Covid will continue to provide benefits to Marlin ISD once things are back to normal, or at least as close to normal as they will get.”

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