COVID-19 and Reopening Schools

Reopening Schools Post-COVID-19

The COVID-19 virus has been wreak­ing hav­oc world­wide and has been caus­ing most coun­tries to need to shut­down for a time to help curb the rate of infec­tions. Most coun­tries have cho­sen to shut down their schools, and are fac­ing the real­i­ty that it will not be very easy to re-start in-per­son school­ing while keep­ing in place pro­tec­tions for stu­dents and staff so that the virus will not quick­ly spread through the schools.

Some of the new chal­lenges include:

Social Dis­tanc­ingStu­dents (and peo­ple in gen­er­al) should be sep­a­rat­ed 6 feet from each oth­er. In many African schools, stu­dents are crowd­ed together.COVID-19 and Reopening Schools

Online Learn­ingIf pos­si­ble, stu­dents should use online learn­ing from home, but in Africa, less than 5% (on aver­age) of stu­dents have a com­put­er at home

Inad­e­quate InfrastructureMany (most in some regions) stu­dents do not have elec­tric­i­ty at home; same applies to schools, although schools are more like­ly to have elec­tric­i­ty than are homes. Addi­tion­al­ly, wired inter­net ser­vice is rare in stu­dent homes, although wire­less access is gen­er­al­ly available.

High Cost of Wire­less DataWire­less cus­tomers typ­i­cal­ly get charged for any data trans­mit­ted or received and the price for such data is gen­er­al­ly high (not like in the US where peo­ple pay for the con­nec­tion, but not the data)

Where We Fit In

Our cur­rent edu­ca­tion offer­ing can be used to help schools and gov­ern­ments in their chal­lenge to re-open. For exam­ple, the fol­low­ing exist­ing fea­tures pro­vide impor­tant facil­i­ties need­ed in the re-opening:

  • Online library of books, includ­ing text­books that stu­dents would reference
  • Online learn­ing (lim­it­ed availability)
  • Video­con­fer­enc­ing (teacher lead­ing sev­er­al remote ses­sions concurrently)
  • Stu­dent Infor­ma­tion Man­age­ment (tak­ing atten­dance, online test­ing — this ben­e­fits the teach­ers lead­ing from remote locations)
  • Solar ener­gy and ruggedi­zed equip­ment for "rolling com­put­er labs", includ­ing note­book com­put­ers, wire­less net­work­ing equipment

Addressing Challenges

Some of the facil­i­ties need­ed for re-open­ing already exist in cur­rent VSI (Visu­al Soft­ware) prod­ucts, while oth­ers, such as net­work­ing equip­ment and remote admin­is­tra­tion are com­mer­cial­ly available.

Challenge 1: Social Distancing

This can be addressed by either

  1. Build­ing more build­ings and hir­ing more teach­ers (very unlikely)
  2. Spread­ing out instruc­tion over more of the cal­en­dar year and/or more of the school day
  3. Using online learn­ing so that some stu­dents can learn from home either full-time or part-time

The most like­ly option from the above list is some com­bi­na­tion of 2) and 3) above. While 2) above most­ly requires changes to the sched­ule and the addi­tion of extra staff, the online learn­ing com­po­nent can be achieved through some mod­i­fi­ca­tions to our nor­mal offer­ing to schools and governments.COVID-19 and Reopening Schools

Challenge 2: Distance Learning

There are a few con­tribut­ing fac­tors here:

  1. Most stu­dents do not have com­put­ers at home
  2. Many do not have access to the Inter­net from home
  3. Many do not have elec­tric­i­ty at home; many schools do not have electricity
  4. Users in Africa pay for their data, unlike the US where users typ­i­cal­ly pur­chase an inter­net con­nec­tion and the data is not charged for separately
  5. The envi­ron­ment in Africa is typ­i­cal­ly much more harsh than in the US (heat, dust, etc.)

Challenge 3: Existing Infrastructure

Although many of the areas we work with do not have things nor­mal­ly expect­ed in the US (like clean run­ning water, indoor plumb­ing and elec­tric­i­ty), they do have good wire­less inter­net ser­vice. Hav­ing access to wire­less inter­net allows a solu­tion like this to be imple­ment­ed. We can pro­vide elec­tric­i­ty with low-volt­age solar ener­gy and wire­less note­book com­put­ers equipped with the rest of what is needed.

Our exist­ing plat­form pro­vides online learn­ing, stu­dent infor­ma­tion man­age­ment and an online library and all of them have been opti­mized to work well in African envi­ron­ments. The staff at Visu­al Soft­ware (the soft­ware sup­pli­er) has spent years prepar­ing for these imple­men­ta­tions by reduc­ing the data used by these appli­ca­tions to an absolute min­i­mum for the task being performed.

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Internet Access and Cost

COVID-19 and Reopening Schools

Aer­i­al View of African Village

Under a COVID-19 back to "school" con­fig­u­ra­tion, each school will have a sin­gle con­nec­tion, either wired or wire­less 3G or 4G. It will use one or more large anten­nae to extend Wi-Fi to the village.

Pro­vid­ing this ser­vice is not near­ly enough to pro­vide remote, online learn­ing for an entire vil­lage with 100–200 stu­dents. Although the num­ber of con­nec­tions may work, even 100 stu­dents shar­ing a sin­gle wire­less con­nec­tion to the inter­net would be too slow to be prac­ti­cal. What would result is that stu­dents might have good con­nec­tiv­i­ty and rea­son­able speed to the school loca­tion (where the inter­net comes in), but the 3G or 4G link would soon become saturated.

How It Works

This is addressed as follows:

COVID-19 and Reopening Schools

  1. Each school would have either a wired inter­net con­nec­tion or a sub­scrip­tion to a wire­less ser­vice. If the school uses a wire­less, a large anten­na would accom­pa­ny a wire­less modem to pro­vide a good con­nec­tion to the school.
  2. To reduce as much as pos­si­ble data that is trans­ferred over that con­nec­tion, we would set up a ded­i­cat­ed lap­top to be used as a serv­er. The rea­son we would use lap­top hard­ware is that it is low-ener­gy, bat­tery-pow­ered and does not emit much heat. This serv­er would have a large disk, and SD card slot and large amounts of memory.
  3. The school would con­struct a Wi-Fi zone that would cov­er the vil­lage and would be acces­si­ble by stu­dents learn­ing from home. Data trans­ferred between the school's serv­er and stu­dents at home would most­ly be over the Wi-Fi net­work, so no data charges would apply. When fresh data is need­ed from the data­base, the serv­er would use the 3G/4G con­nec­tion to retrieve (and stage) the infor­ma­tion from the cloud. The large bulk of need­ed infor­ma­tion would be stored local­ly on the school's serv­er, allow­ing it to be trans­mit­ted to stu­dents at home over the Wi-Fi (free) con­nec­tions. Note: the equip­ment used for cre­at­ing the vil­lage-based Wi-Fi will vary depend­ing on the size of the "send­ing region" and oth­er envi­ron­men­tal fac­tors (includ­ing the amount of plant cov­er in the area).
  4. The school would be allo­cat­ed a num­ber of ruggedi­zed note­book com­put­ers for some stu­dents to take home. These have built-in Wi-Fi access and would be run­ning Win­dows 10. Hav­ing a full oper­at­ing sys­tem on the student's note­book com­put­er would allow us to cache even more infor­ma­tion on his or her machine.

So, for exam­ple, if the stu­dent request­ed access to a library book that has nev­er been request­ed by any­one at the school, the con­tents of the book would be sent from the cloud appli­ca­tion to the "school serv­er" (this one-time event would incur data charges). As the stu­dent begins to read the book, its con­tents would be down­loaded from the school serv­er to the student's com­put­er over the vil­lage Wi-Fi (no addi­tion­al costs incurred). As oth­er stu­dents request the same book, a copy is trans­ferred form the school com­put­er and stored (cached) on the student's note­book com­put­er (no data charges incurred).

Sim­i­lar caching would take place for all oth­er online learn­ing mate­ri­als, as they are accessed. To reduce ini­tial costs of onboard­ing the school, a mem­o­ry card with an ini­tial set of library books and online learn­ing mate­ri­als will be includ­ed so that the schools will not need to down­load most of the mate­ri­als ini­tial­ly. This will sig­nif­i­cant­ly reduce set-up data costs and improve per­for­mance for stu­dents access­ing any­thing in that distribution.

Satellite Locations

In many places in Africa, more than one vil­lage can share one or more schools. The map to the right shows an exam­ple of where this might occur: it shows three vil­lages that could share a com­mon school. Chil­dren nor­mal­ly walk to school, and since there is a ravine between the vil­lages, the stu­dents may have a long and dif­fi­cult walk to school.

If the school had basic con­nec­tiv­i­ty and the solu­tion we are plan­ning for African schools, they could imple­ment some­thing sim­i­lar to a remote school with a video link. For this exam­ple, we can refer to the two vil­lages in the aer­i­al view to the right as the "north vil­lage" and the "south vil­lage". If the shared school is locat­ed in the south vil­lage and if a build­ing that could pos­si­bly be used (such as a church) exist­ed in the north vil­lage, a "point-to-point" con­nec­tion could be made between the two build­ings, putting both into the same local area network.

COVID-19 and Reopening Schools

Two vil­lages that are sep­a­rat­ed by a ravine but share the same schools

This is dif­fer­ent that the Wi-Fi zone described above — cur­rent tech­nol­o­gy present­ly only those types of "omni­di­rec­tion­al" zones to con­nect with end­points with­in a mile or two; point-to-point con­nec­tions can range up to about 8 miles (but only between two points).

This would allow the north vil­lage build­ing to act as a "satel­lite school", with class­es being brought in via video­con­fer­enc­ing and online learn­ing. The aer­i­al view below shows how the two vil­lages would be con­nect­ed. The staff mem­bers could work from either loca­tion (whichev­er is clos­er to where they live). The objec­tive is that only one set of teach­ers would be need­ed and that the trav­el (trek) for some of the stu­dents could be great­ly reduced.

COVID-19 and Reopening Schools

Two vil­lages con­nect­ed via a point-to-point link

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Sus­tain­abil­i­ty and Busi­ness Model

COVID-19 and Reopening SchoolsSustainability

Sus­tain­abil­i­ty in an imple­men­ta­tion, in a very gen­er­al sense, means that items that are deployed to help a com­mu­ni­ty are capa­ble of being main­tained in the future by mem­bers from that com­mu­ni­ty, with­out requir­ing that the ini­tial imple­menter remain involved for­ev­er. For more infor­ma­tion on this and our plan for sus­tain­abil­i­ty, press the link below.

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COVID-19 and Reopening SchoolsScalability

Many projects like these have dif­fi­cul­ty pro­gress­ing from pilot imple­men­ta­tions to large-scale imple­men­ta­tions. Instead of incre­men­tal­ly grow­ing small scale tech­nol­o­gy by adding loca­tions, we designed for very large imple­men­ta­tions (tens of thou­sands of loca­tions) from the begin­ning. To learn more, press the link below.

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COVID-19 and Reopening SchoolsResearch

To ensure that solu­tions we pro­vide meet the needs of the com­mu­ni­ties we serve, we have spent con­sid­er­able time vis­it­ing those loca­tions, speak­ing with poten­tial users and work­ing with gov­ern­ment offi­cials in those coun­tries. To learn more, press the link below.

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Solar Ener­gy

COVID-19 and Reopening SchoolsSolar Energy

Many of the com­mu­ni­ties where we will work either do not have elec­tric­i­ty or have an inad­e­quate sup­ply. Our solu­tions does not need much pow­er, but some is required to recharge note­book com­put­ers, run net­work­ing equip­ment. We have a designed an unusu­al solar ener­gy solu­tion that requires lit­tle to no main­te­nance for years, extends equip­ment life­time and is priced more afford­ably than com­mon­ly used sys­tems. To learn more, press the link below.

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Visual Software, Inc.