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Roaring Fork School District to supply private network for online learning

Photo illustration of student video conference e-learning with teacher and classmates.
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The Roaring Fork School District (RFSD) could provide internet access for the majority of its 5,000 students using CARES ACT funding, a district representative said.

Slated to cost about $240,000, a new private 4G internet network could connect RFSD students and teachers throughout the 2020-2021 school year and beyond, RFSD Chief Operating Officer Jeff Gatlin said.

“We plan to start rolling the network out in phases with the first locations going live by Aug. 24,” Gatlin said, explaining Aug. 24 was the district’s first day of instruction.

District schools in Glenwood Springs, Carbondale and Basalt open Monday with an online distance learning format, but will use the first week for student and family orientations before actual schoolwork begins.

Ensuring students have internet access might be paramount as the COVID-19 pandemic gains ground in schools across the nation, with students returning to classrooms for the first time since the outbreak began. 

RFSD already runs a program to provide every student with a Google Chromebook, ensuring they have access to internet-capable devices. But, with the valley’s spotty broadband internet infrastructure, Gatlin said RFSD is taking online learning capabilities a step further.

Carbondale Middle School staffers work to get Chromebooks ready to hand out to students to begin the new school year with online distance learning.
Provided

“We know we have kids that really struggle with internet access,” Gatlin said. “So, we’re looking to stand up equipment and work with families to ultimately get the kids online.”

New tech

The ability to sponsor a 4G network is ultramodern and relies on previously restricted bandwidth.

“This is a very new technology,” Gatlin said. “Basically, we’re relying on a band of wireless signal that traditionally was reserved for private carriers.”

Some of that bandwidth recently became available to the public, allowing the district to purchase equipment that can access the signal. Gatlin said RFSD is working with several partners, including the city of Glenwood Springs and the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority, on locations and installation of the new equipment.

The new network would be separate from the RFSD’s current internet network and would not rely on RFSD bandwidth, Gatlin added.

Once installed, the district could partner with nonprofit organizations and an internet provider to help monitor the web traffic.

“We don’t want to be the internet service provider,” Gatlin said, “because, we don’t want to get into the business of tracking information and monitoring traffic.”

One reason the district has yet to choose a provider is a significant portion of the district’s students without internet access are Latino, Gatlin said.

Those students’ parents have expressed concern about what type of information would be transferred via the private network.

“We’re working with families to ensure this is a safe and private option for our students,” he said.

RFSD intends to select a provider before Aug. 24. 

Flexibility

Even with multiple coverage areas, the new network is not a silver bullet for the district’s student connectivity problems.

“We knows there’s a gap, and as we start phasing this in, there will still be a gap,” Gatlin said. “There aren’t easy answers to all of our situations, but we’re talking to parents, because we want to understand what all our issues are and some possible solutions.”

Prior to the summer break, the district counted about 300 students without internet.

“There were a lot of things offered at the time that were short-term solutions,” Gatlin said. “But, our guess is that number has increased.”

RFSD is conducting a connectivity survey, but the results were not available by week’s end last week.

To account for the access gaps, building flexibility into the instructional side of online learning could be a necessity for the foreseeable future. Once the kinks have been ironed out, the network could serve the district for years to come.

“This is not intended as a short-term solution,” Gatlin said. “And certainly, it opens a lot of doors down the road.”

ifredregill@postindependent.com


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