SUFFOLK, Va. (WAVY) — Most kids in coastal Virginia will start their school year from home, meaning internet access is critical for classroom participation. That access, though, is out of the realm of possibility for some families in rural areas, a challenge that school districts began struggling with long before the pandemic forced learning online.
Suffolk Public Schools Director of Technology John Littlefield says he doesn’t have an exact count of the number of students who live in unserviceable areas, since some access the internet by traveling away from home, but estimates it is between 100 and 250 students.
“I think everybody should be connected,” Littlefield said. “We should do our best to provide that resource to every student in SPS.”
To that end, SPS distributed more than a thousand hot spots to help students who don’t have internet at home.
Although service provider maps show that the cellular devices should work anywhere in Suffolk, and therefore a hotspot should be able to pick up a signal for a student to connect to the internet, Littlefield said the reality is far different.
“During the pandemic in the spring, I drove out to residents houses to see, because they said they couldn’t get connectivity,” he said. “Sure enough, the signal level is so weak there, there’s no way they could get it.”
New ideas for fall
Littlefield came up with another solution for the fall, inspired by students he saw sitting on beach chairs beneath an awning at a middle school, connecting to its WiFi in order to get their work done.
Littlefield took that idea and formalized the arrangement in two ways: first, this fall, students can make appointments to get inside three schools to access WiFi and get their work done.
But the limited school hours at the Resource Access Centers presented another problem.
“We also heard from families that the parents are working and they can’t bring their student to school during those hours to get connectivity,” Littlefield said. “That’s why we said, ‘We’ve got to give them something that would be available 24/7,’ and that was our outside solution.’”
The “outside solution” consists of three schools where equipment has been installed to boost the wireless signal outdoors, for students who can’t make it to indoor access points.
Lakeland High School, Pioneer Elementary and Whaleyville Recreation Center are now designated Wireless Access Points.
“We just took advantage of something that was already happening in the district,” Littlefield said.
Sitting in a car or at a picnic table in different weather conditions isn’t a perfect solution, but it is an immediate one and one that will be quickly measurable.
Within weeks, Littlefield and his team will be able to measure the success of the Resource Access Centers and Wireless Access Points.
“We can actually monitor the connections, so we’ll know how many Suffolk Public School devices actually connect to them on any given day, at any given time,” he said. “We’ll aggregate that data to see, was it worth doing? Or do we need more?”
Longer-term, the city has applied for a grant to expand coverage within its borders.
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