Editor’s note: Through a grant from the Walton Family Foundation, The Salt Lake Tribune is reporting in-depth on the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on education.
Murray • In the school district that covers this small suburb of Salt Lake County — a nearly perfect 3-mile by 3-mile square that includes some of the poorest neighborhoods in the state — every student will soon be connected to high-speed internet at home.
It will be delivered through a network dreamed up and built entirely by Murray School District, an extraordinary undertaking that no other district in the nation has ever pulled off. And the service will be free for the kids there at a crucial time, when the pandemic has made access to broadband as essential to education as books.
“We’re pioneering it,” said Jason Eyre, the technology supervisor for Murray schools, who has been called “the godfather of Utah’s new educational broadband plan” after working on the project for more than two years.
“We started out with this trying to solve economic problems,” where low-income students didn’t have the same access, he added. “Then the coronavirus hit, and we realized it was even more important and we needed to move even faster to get these kids connected.”
The last pieces were put into place Thursday, and the first-of-its-kind network — which operates like your smartphone getting data wirelessly — went fully online. Small dots, showing the towers the district has installed across its 12 school buildings, turned from red to green on a live coverage map.
There are 44 towers total, including six at the district’s one high school. The structures look like metal trees with an antenna on top and are placed largely on roofs to create the LTE network. The acronym for “Long-term Evolution” refers to an upgrade of wireless data networks that dates back about 10 years, and included switching to new radio spectrum.
Before now, the radios at Murray schools have mostly provided Wi-Fi inside the buildings. But Murray has used federal funding for COVID-19 to purchase and engineer higher quality towers that can send an internet signal much farther — between 900 feet and a mile, to the houses and apartments of all of its 6,000 students.
The district will now be distributing hotspots and other receivers to its kids to place in a window of their home. That will pick up the signal from the towers, and when a student opens a Chromebook from the district, it will automatically connect online.
“We’re taking the network that runs well in our schools and getting it to their homes,” Eyre said.
Gaps in access to the internet were a national problem long before the pandemic, creating one of the biggest signifiers of inequity in education based on who could or could not log on.
But the virus added new urgency to addressing it when students were sent home in the spring to do all of their learning remotely. Many kids, in both urban and rural areas of Utah, whose families couldn’t afford internet at home had no way to join a Zoom class. Having a school-issued device, which Murray provided for all of its students, was useless without the broadband to get online and submit assignments.
Local libraries, where they might have gone for Wi-Fi to do their homework before the pandemic, were all closed. And some schools, including Beaver High in southern Utah, have reported seeing tens of cars lined up in the parking lot where kids are now trying to pick up a signal.
“The principal there could see how far the Wi-Fi reached by where the line ended,” said Sarah Young, director of strategic initiatives for the Utah Board of Education. “That can’t be the answer.”
Reopening schools doesn’t solve it either, she added, though most in Utah have given kids the option to return in person this fall. Even with that, students are still in and out with quarantines, schools have had to close for outbreaks and some parents have elected for their kids to stay online for fear of the virus spreading (including about 25% of families in Murray).
Internet access has “got to be in the home,” Young said. “That’s where it’s needed.”
Murray’s network, called PowerPlay LTE, does just that. And the hope is that it will be a model for all school districts moving forward.
Focusing on equity
Eyre held up one of the internet receivers that will be delivered to students’ homes. It’s a black box with bendable plastic arms poking out of both sides at an angle.
“Have you ever seen ‘Stars Wars’?” he asked with a smile. “Doesn’t this look just like Darth Vader’s spaceship? I like to call the room where we store these the Imperial Starfleet Garage.”
Aside from the otherworldly look, though, they were picked with the specific student population of Murray in mind. Most kids in the Murray district live in multifamily complexes and their families can’t afford many utilities beyond rent. So the district got 425 of the special receivers that can can carry the signal from a school and supply enough Wi-Fi to cover, for instance, an entire apartment building.
They’re much stronger than a regular hotspot and, similar to how a CB radio works, can pick up a 3.5 to 3.7 GHz bandwidth approved by the Federal Communications Commission. It’s the same technology used in police cars.
To figure out where there’d be the most demand for broadband in the district, Eyre created a heat map of households in the lowest income brackets. The reddest spots were where he began testing the program.
One of those areas was near Murray High and Hillcrest Junior High around 5600 South, “a pocket of high economic need,” Eyre noted, with one apartment building that houses 54 students. One of the receivers has already been placed on the top floor there, and has been in steady use since.
“I grew up as one of those poor kids,” Eyre added. “I want to help other kids be able to get past that.”
Roughly 37% of students in the district — one of the highest proportions in the state — are considered economically disadvantaged. And about 13% don’t have any internet at home. That’s also higher than the Utah overall, where 11% of kids don’t have access to broadband.
“This is about shrinking longstanding equity issue,” said Murray Superintendent Jennifer Covington.
Even for some of the families that can afford — or barely afford — a plan, they don’t always get a good connection. Comcast, for instance, released a new “essentials” program for low-income households during the pandemic that costs $9.95 a month. But it uses the lowest connection speed possible, which usually can’t accommodate Zoom.
And if a family has more than three kids logging on or parents working from home, too, it sometimes won’t work at all. That’s why Eyre also focused on the concentration of students in a house, along with economic status. That put about 1,000 more red spots on the map and led him to believe the broadband should be offered districtwide. Nearly everyone had a need.
That includes Jeannette Bowen’s family, who struggled to maintain an internet connection when classes went entirely online in the spring. Murray School District was the first in the state to close down after an exposure there. And at the time, Bowen had seven kids — one in college, five in the district and one in preschool — all trying to get online.
“There were times when the internet would just go out,” the mom said. “And there was nothing I could do about it. It was quite stressful.”
She remembers one particularly chaotic day when her 21-year-old daughter, Emily, a student at Brigham Young University, was trying to take a test while Hannah, 12, was at the dining room table submitting an assignment. Sam, who’s 5, was logging in for a Zoom call. And everything just froze.
Hannah kept trying to submit, and it wouldn’t go through; she was worried she would get an F. Sam was freaking out because he was missing class. And Emily had to schedule a retake on her exam.
“There were just so many times like that when we were holding our breath,” Bowen said.
Now, Murray’s LTE network will pull her five youngest kids off the family’s Wi-Fi and onto the school’s program, freeing up some bandwidth for the rest of the family.
Kelly Taeoalii can’t wait either. She’s got six kids, three in college and three in the district. The internet at her house, she said, was going out several times a day when they were all logging on this spring.
Her two youngest girls, Sariah in ninth grade and Grace in seventh grade, are continuing to do some of their schooling at home, opting for a hybrid model with just a few in-person classes. Even when just the two of them are online, they sometimes fight over the spots in the house that get the best Wi-Fi connection. And that doesn’t count the times her other four kids have been quarantined, or when her daughter in 11th grade got COVID-19, or school was shut down with an outbreak (twice for Murray High).
Taeoalii said there have been 33 days like that, out of school, and she was grateful that her children didn’t fall behind because they were still able to log on for class.
The district internet is also filtered, blocking inappropriate websites, as well as Netflix and Hulu so kids stay focused on schoolwork. And it’s a closed system, so it will only work on the school-issued Chromebooks.
Additionally, for families who don’t speak English — another equity challenge — those computers can be programmed to run in their home language once they are connected to the Wi-Fi.
‘A model for the rest of our state’
Prior to the pandemic, the state was focused on making sure all school buildings had internet access. And it did a pretty good job with that, with most schools reporting that at least 80% of their buildings had adequate Wi-Fi, according to an annual state technology report.
But no one was looking at how to bridge the gap at home, said Young with the Utah Board of Education. And that turned out to be a much bigger need and a much harder one to solve.
During the pandemic, the state has distributed about $5 million in grants to local school districts and charters to improve internet access. Most of what that’s being spent, Young said, is trying to fix two issues. First, the affordability piece that Eyre has been trying to address where families can’t cover the cost to connect. That largely takes place along the Wasatch Front.
The second is about the infrastructure needed for broadband, an issue in the more rural areas of Utah. In San Juan and Daggett counties, Young said, there was little of the cabling necessary to carry an internet signal before the pandemic to the houses that are sometimes hundreds of miles apart. Some local providers, she said, have stepped up to install the equipment, giving access to about 1,600 families so far. And the districts are using the grant money to cover the monthly bills.
The divide is still fairly wide. In San Juan County, for instance, 47% of the students don’t have internet access at home, according to data from the Utah Education and Telehealth Network, or UETN, which has been focused on expanding internet access to students in the state. Some kids in San Juan report climbing the hills behind their houses to try to get a clear connection.
“It’s all dirt roads, and it’s hard to get a hold of people. There’s a signal here and there. But where we live on the reservation, there’s no Wi-Fi access,” said mother Renae Cly.
Meanwhile, Uintah County’s teachers union pleaded on Twitter that they “desperately need help with internet services.”
Initially, UETN tried to assist by providing lists of where students could go to get internet with the pandemic, including McDonald’s and the parking lots of schools where they’d focused on getting connections prior to COVID-19. “But we shouldn’t have to have them do that,” said Ray Timothy, the CEO.
UETN has since coordinated with 25 of the 41 school districts in the state to rent out small hotspots “like you would check out a library book,” added Kelleigh Cole, the organization’s senior IT manager. And they’ve assisted San Juan County, in particular, to start work on a fiber optic-based broadband that would replace the slow, microwave-based system currently in use there.
Some of the districts UETN is working with are also trying temporary solutions, like Millard County, in placing school buses with a strong Wi-Fi hotspot in areas of need.
“For the circumstances we’re in — that no one asked for or desired — we have done as well as we could have ever hoped,” Millard Superintendent David Styler has previously told The Salt Lake Tribune.
But the end goal is actually replicating what Murray has done in other parts of the state. Gov. Spencer Cox, whose family owns CentraCom, a telecommunications company, said at Murray’s network launch that internet at home should be considered an essential utility. And he’s proposed allocating $50 million in his budget for expanding broadband.
Timothy said when he first heard Eyre’s proposal — which Eyre had starting working on when he was previously employed at Garfield County School District — “I thought he was crazy. I thought he was chasing a wild hare. I was wrong. Now, it will serve as a model for the rest of our state.”
It will be tried first in Wasatch County and then Tooele. San Juan will likely follow. The plan is to reach far beyond the 3-mile by 3-mile square district in Salt Lake City.
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