A survey by the Canby School District last month found that more than 500 students did not have reliable access to the internet. While unfortunate, this would not be a reason to panic during a normal school year — but nothing is normal about this last trimester of the Canby School District calendar.
The same month the survey was released, the district was given new guidance to pivot to a purely distance-based model of teaching and learning. And the internet — one of the primary foundations upon which this new model would be built — was not immediately available to some 15 to 20 percent of the district’s students.
Solving this problem of connectivity would take some creativity on the part of the district and its technology department.
All of the local telecommunications providers — DirectLink, Wave Broadband, Molalla Communications and Monitor Telecom — are offering free broadband access for 60 days to Canby School District families in their coverage areas, with no fees or deposits, no commitments and no previous billing issues being taken into account.
Technology Manager Bret Adkins told the Canby School Board at its virtual meeting Thursday night that DirectLink alone had hooked up or was in the process of hooking up almost 100 new households through this program.
But the process of bringing the internet to, potentially, hundreds of new households will take time, and it still leaves out some areas in the district that aren’t served by any of the companies, or where the infrastructure doesn’t exist to provide service.
Early on, the district had also sought to acquire portable WiFi hotspots to provide to families who needed them — with high school seniors still needing credits for graduation being the top priority.
This led to an outside-the-box idea that the district is now in the process of testing: Turning the parking lot of Canby High School into a WiFi hotspot zone. Like a Starbucks, just without the coffee or, you know, human interaction.
“This was born out of a frustrating phone call with one of the big four cell phone companies,” Adkins told the Canby Now Podcast. “They let us know that the hotspots we ordered were diverted to health care and first responders at the last minute, and that replacement units could actually take months to arrive.”
While the district says it will continue to pursue acquiring mobile hotspots, the experience led Adkins to realize it was a process they had little control over. One thing they can control, however, is their own infrastructure.
The high school itself is already a hotspot, but that’s doing little good for anybody while all school facilities have been ordered closed. With the purchase of some inexpensive refurbished equipment, Adkins believes they can redirect these wireless signals from the high school classrooms to its largest parking lot.
“This model supports social distancing, and while not ideal, could be a way to reach hundreds of members of our community who can’t easily access internet services,” Adkins said.
Adkins said the new equipment was expected to arrive Friday, with tests set to begin early next week. If the tests don’t go well, he said they’ll try another building or area until they find the combination that supports the best signal.
“This is something that we have to test, because we simply don’t know the quality of the connection we’ll be able to sustain,” Adkins admitted. “However, there is data that suggests the ability to support hundreds of devices utilized in cars parked close to the building.”
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