Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, a digital divide had emerged between children with high-speed internet access at home and those without. However, the pandemic exacerbated this divide as schools closed and millions of children across the nation were forced to learn from home.
Solving the “homework gap” and providing secure internet access for children in K-12 school districts and public libraries is a national priority. Even with schools reopened, remote learning has become a staple for learners and is essential to education recovery. Secure internet access for students at home is still important in closing this “homework gap” as well as to comply with the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) and the K-12 Cybersecurity Act. Also important, public libraries are one of the few local facilities where the public can gain access, at no cost, to the digital tools and technology needed to live and thrive in today’s world.
U.S. Federal and State governments have focused generous funding packages to meet this challenge. For example, the American Rescue Plan (ARP), provided via the Federal Communications Commision (FCC), $7.2 billion to the Emergency Connectivity Fund (ECF) program for home internet access and connected devices for K-12 education.
Thanks to this and other measures, K-12 school districts have the financial resources they need to support the 12 million students estimated to fall into the “homework gap.” However, even with funding in hand, schools face significant challenges when it comes to eLearning, particularly how to provide a safe and secure digital environment.
According to the fourth annual report on The State of K-12 Cybersecurity released in March 2022 by nonprofit K12 Security Information Exchange, a total of 166 school incidents affected schools in 162 school districts across 38 states in 2021. As schools try to close homework gaps by offering internet access for the students who do not have it at home, they also face a need to ensure that connectivity is secure and safe for kids. Every connection from those students is an entry point to the school networks that cybercriminals can exploit. Securing those connections is therefore necessary and critical.
For one East Coast school district, visibility was key. The district had purchased cellular hotspots and laptops to loan to students but had no visibility into how students were using the hotspots. The district therefore had no way of knowing whether students were studying or watching Netflix, for example. This lack of visibility also brought a compliance risk. Under CIPA, school districts must ensure that students are unable to access obscene or harmful content.
In addition to security concerns, the district also had challenges around service quality. As its hotspots relied on single-carrier cellular connectivity, the service was poor in areas of low network coverage. This is a common problem. One South-Central U.S. school district also found that its hotspot devices for remote learning struggled in the more remote regions of the district where coverage can be poor.
As eLearning becomes a more integral part of the K-12 educational experience, Fortinet and Linksys have teamed up to provide a secure connectivity solution. Linksys HomeWRK for Education secured by Fortinet uses provisioning-free, “plug-and-play” devices and nationwide data plans that automatically connect to the carrier that has the best coverage. This enables school districts to easily provide students with reliable and secure internet connections for schoolwork. The solution is protected by the latest Fortinet security technology to intelligently filter inappropriate content and harmful malware.
The system is ideal for public K-12 districts and libraries, because both the hardware and service packages are eligible for funding through ARP for K-12 education via the ECF program. Also, K-12 schools may utilize current Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations (CRRSA) and ARP Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funding to offset the costs for hardware and data plan access. Both ECF and ESSER funding are 100% federal funding. That means no local matching funding is required. As a result, the solution can deliver major budget savings or allow districts to avoid using their own budgets altogether.
The South-Central U.S. district, for example, was able to transition from a legacy $100,000 annual remote schooling solution to hundreds of Linksys HomeWRK for Education devices secured by Fortinet entirely on the basis of government funds. That means the district now has an additional $100,000 a year to spend, which it is using to add FortiFone IP (Internet Protocol) phones, FortiCamera security cameras, and FortiAP access points to further boost its digital and physical security.
Cost aside, the benefit of the Fortinet and Linksys solution is that it empowers network managers at school districts with the visibility and security they need to protect their networks and meet compliance requirements.
The East Coast district, which had struggled with just these requirements, deployed the HomeWRK solution for 100 students in its area. The district now benefits from reports detailing the sites and applications accessed by students. The solution comes pre-configured for CIPA compliance, with smart web filtering and application control features that ensure that students can only use the devices for learning purposes.
All web traffic for the solution flows through the FortiGate Next-Generation Firewall. The Solution therefore provides comprehensive threat protection covering ransomware, phishing, and other web-borne attacks, providing a far greater security capability than was in place before.
Finally, the solution solves the cellular connectivity challenge by using multiple carriers. Students’ devices connect to whichever provider has the best coverage in their local area, ensuing access for all.
In the U.S. alone, for those 12 million students who do not have adequate internet access at home, all school districts now have additional requirements to provide secure access offerings to such qualified students. As Linksys and Fortinet are showing, innovative approaches can deliver the secure connectivity that schools and their students need without placing a strain on budgets. Doing so will help bridge the digital divide and improve outcomes for all students.
For more information on Linksys HomeWRK for Education Secured by Fortinet, visit: Think Outside the Classroom.