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TECNOLOGY| 27.01.2021

Coronavirus, rural schools and the importance of the Internet

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It would be fair to say that the main tool that kept teaching from becoming completely paralyzed in March, April and May 2020 in Spain was the Internet. It enabled classes to continue through video conferencing and various file sharing methods. 

Now, with the return of face-to-face classes, it continues to act as an open window to knowledge, a framework offering access to a multitude of applications and content that help teachers in their work. This may be especially important in rural areas. While there are some shortcomings in specific areas, most of us can probably access the Web in Spain — but is this the case all over the world?

What happens to those without Internet access during the pandemic?

In rural areas of Colombia, when schools were closed, they found themselves in a difficult situation that made it almost impossible to keep the educational system operating. First of all, the students did not have any textbooks. Secondly, they did not have a computer in most cases either. And it’s hard to talk about Internet access when you can’t always count on a guaranteed power supply. Without a connection to the Internet, the idea of online education simply isn’t feasible.

Teachers had to address all these shortcomings, as much as possible, by developing and printing school guides to deliver to the parents of the students, even arranging for them to be delivered door-to-door. The individuals who went from home to home delivering the guides became known as educational messengers (in this video you can see and hear school system managers, teachers and students commenting on this initiative).

The Wireless on Wheels Experience in Louisa County

We’re not just talking about developing countries here, since it would be a mistake to make assumptions without checking all the information available. A few months ago, we read that rural schools in certain parts of the United States had been the lifeline that had allowed many schoolchildren to access the Internet. There are regions where broadband services aren’t available, simply and only because the supplying companies don’t feel the investment is justified.

This is the case in some rural counties near the city of Charlottesville, Virginia. And they gave us the example of Louisa County where it is estimated that 40 percent of children do not have good Internet access at home. There, when the schools closed in March, they came up with a solution similar to the one already described in Colombia, and decided to print out school materials for the schoolchildren.

Over the summer, authorities invested in implementing Internet access points. Several solutions were considered that did not work, such as using school buses to create mobile hotspots. They eventually manufactured solar-powered wireless units from scratch, which were called Wireless on Wheels (WOW) and distributed them throughout the county. Teachers and vocational training students collaborated on the project.

When they started, the goal was to establish 30 hotspots by August 13, when classes were scheduled to resume. These mobile Internet access points are set up in parking lots of churches, schools and supermarkets in the small towns of Louisa and Mineral. They ensure that any family residing in Louisa County will be within 20 minutes of one of these points.

Those interested can visit the Wireless on Wheels project’s official website created by Louisa County Public Schools, promoters of the general concept. Here, visitors can find the location of the hotspots and, more interestingly, detailed instructions on how to build one of these Internet access points. This includes the main frame, support for the solar cells that make the hotspots autonomous and, finally, how to correctly arrange all the electrical elements. Each of these mobile points offers a WiFi signal that reaches a radius of 200 feet (equivalent to about 61 meters).

Louisa County Public Schools, as stated on their website, own the idea, design and all rights of Wireless on Wheels, but encourage other public schools (mainly in the U.S., we assume) to create their own units, always with the necessary precautions and safety measures, of course.

A second opportunity in Spain for rural schools

The paradox that the current situation created in Spain is that several rural schools have been given a second chance because of the pandemic. References to the depopulated areas of the country have become very common in Spain, and it’s a well-known fact that this type of school has been closing, one by one, until they have practically disappeared.

The “ABC” newspaper tells the story of Aguilar de Alfambra, a small town in Teruel province, with only 63 inhabitants recorded in the last census, whose small school reopened its doors to take in five children after being closed for thirty years. In Arrabalde, a small town in Zamora province, a school has reopened for eight students.

These are very specific experiences, which we can count on the fingers of one hand, but it could indicate a path to follow in the future. In that case, these locations are free of all the problems that promote the virus’s transmission: there are no mass gatherings and there is no need to resort to public transportation to reach them.

In principle, with face-to-face activity already resumed, the Internet is a more accessible tool for teachers, an element that can, or should, be used equally both in rural areas and large cities.

It seems clear that the people responsible for the Virginia project are absolutely convinced that the Internet is essential if the preference, or only option, is to teach online. This has become a crucial factor during the pandemic.

Colombia has suffered from a lack of adequate infrastructure and in Spain, having this infrastructure has allowed education to continue as before. Now that we’ve returned to the classroom, the Internet remains the key to a plan B, to the option of returning to online classes if the situation deteriorates again (as has been seen in the case of Storm Filomena).

The Internet is also a source of educational resources and offers a wealth of learning opportunities. Both now and when this is all over, rural areas cannot be allowed to miss out on this opportunity for progress, as has been the case with other developments in the past. If, as in Spain, the difficult experiences we are living through also lead us to realize that the rural schools that closed now have a reason to reopen their doors, we’ll have something positive to show from this experience. The new can and must coexist with what we had come to think of as “old-fashioned,” when it was in fact just “different.”