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 Distancing Students (and people in general) should be separated 6 feet from each other.  In many African schools, students are crowded together.
Online Learning If possible, students should use online learning from home, but in Africa, less than 5% (on average) of students have a computer at home
Inadequate Infrastructure Many (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 Data Wireless 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.

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

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.

Aerial View of African Village

This is addressed as follows:

    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.

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.

Two villages connected via a point-to-point link