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School District of Palm Beach County improving internet access for thousands of families

School year starting on Aug. 31 with distance learning for all students
Posted at 7:32 AM, Aug 20, 2020
and last updated 2020-08-20 11:26:32-04

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — With the start of distance learning less than two weeks away, the School District of Palm Beach County is hard at work to make sure every student can be successful online.

After distance learning in the spring, the district determined that more than 15,000 families needed internet access support, and many families have only a parent’s smartphone as their source of internet connectivity.

The district's performance accountability chief Mark Howard said they needed a solution that would be sustainable on a large scale. He said they are spending $2 million to connect 20,000 students over six months with two different short-term solutions.

Those short-term solutions include T-Mobile hotspots and internet sponsorships through Comcast.

However, the long-term solution will provide enhanced internet access to families well beyond the scope of distance learning through municipal WiFi.

"First of all, through our needs analysis, we developed what’s called a heat map. This heat map identifies 21 hot spots around the county where there is high density of free and reduced lunch students, which is tightly correlated to this need. Through those 21 zones, what we’re doing with the county is identifying school sites, we've identified 71 school sites where we’ll complete the fiber optic cable to get to one of our education network towers or monopoles, put a base radio at that location, and then supporting network of radios in the nearby community to broadcast this WiFi mesh," Howard said. "The last piece of that is what you would think of as a wireless router in your home, in these instances we’re purchasing these WiFi extenders, we will be, to go in each one of those homes that will pick the signal up from the outside and amplify it in the home to make sure we have a reliable signal with adequate strength."

The project is targeting the Glades community first and work is also underway at West Gate Elementary in West Palm Beach. Then the project will move to Lake Worth Beach.

Howard calls the project a "monumental undertaking" and said many non-profits and community partners are also contributing to making it possible.

"Schools know who the families are who need it. They will assign it just like you would check out a Chromebook or something else you would give the students and it's a consumer-level device. We're hoping a simple set of instructions as simple as plug it in and connect to it," Howard said.

Howard added they will work to make sure families have the IT support they need if they run into trouble. The benefits, he said, go beyond distance learning.

"Once we connect a family to the internet for educational purposes, it also opens the opportunity for all of the other resources from telemedicine and banking and job applications that families might previously not had opportunity for. But we believe it's the human element- is critical to connect those families to services and social services as well whether it’s mental and behavioral health or otherwise," Howard said.

Deputy Superintendent Keith Oswald said it's "probably the most exciting of what's going to come out of COVID-19."

"These WiFi extenders and this municipal WiFi, that's here to stay," Oswald said. "The county has already made a commitment through the leadership of Verdenia Baker that they will maintain and replace those radios so the school district is committed to providing the devices to the students to make sure they have that kind of access. Everybody came around to solve this problem for education but it opens up opportunity that are kind of unique but also equally important."

The district said it is working around the clock to get work done by the start of school on Monday, Aug. 31. The district is also distributing an addition 80,000 digital devices to students who need them.

If you have internet connectivity or device needs and have not spoken to your child's school yet, the district said to get in touch with them as soon as possible. They'll also soon be looking for sponsorships through a fundraising campaign.

You can learn more about preparing for the start of the 2020-21 school year in Palm Beach County by clicking here.