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Donated Antennas, Routers And Wi-Fi Help Rutland School Kids Stay Connected

two men stand outside a car in front of a high school.
Nina Keck
/
VPR
Dan Roswell (left) Rutland City Public Schools network administrator and para educator Doug Perkins hand out high speed internet routers in the parking lot of Rutland High School.

When the governor announced all schools would remain closed for the rest of the year on March 26, Rutland City school officials knew they had a big gap in front of them that needed to be addressed. They estimated about half their students wouldn't have high-speed internet or a computer or tablet to use at home. 

On a recent Friday, Dan Roswell, the network administrator for Rutland City’s public schools, was trying to address that. He was out in the rain, meeting families in the parking lot in front of Rutland High School.

“This is where we’ve been deploying Chromebooks [from] all week,” Roswell said, from from his post near the high school’s front door.

“People pull around the circle and we hand them a Chromebook and [then] they head out, so we’ve had kind of a drive-through Chromebook service,” he added, smiling.

Rutland City’s public schools enroll slightly more than 2,200 students, nearly 70 percent of whom are low-income.

The Chromebook distribution has been going well, Roswell said. The district has been investing in student computers for several years.

“But when we started looking at sending kids home [to an environment] without wireless [internet access], you can’t really do a whole lot,” he explained. “You can’t do research; you can’t access information; you can’t talk with your teacher; you can’t communicate. So that puts any student without wireless at a huge disadvantage.”

"You can't do research; you can't access information; you can't talk with your teacher; you can't communicate. So that puts any student without wireless at a huge disadvantage." — Dan Roswell, Rutland City Public Schools

Roswell estimated that 10% to 20% of Rutland City students did not have access to wireless internet, so the school district reached out to the city’s local wireless provider, the Vermont Telephone Company (VTel), for help. He says they came through.

“The first thing that had to happen was VTel had to install cellular antennas in downtown Rutland," Roswell said. "This is a new system [and it] took a couple days to roll out because they had to build the infrastructure.” 

VTel didn’t want to comment for this story, but in a press release the company said “VTel and its sister company VTel Wireless, in collaboration with Ericsson, mobilized quickly to deploy and install next-generation 4G/5G wireless radios and antennas on a building in downtown Rutland. These actions, combined with delivering wireless modems and routers to homes, allowed students to receive free Internet service immediately.”  

Ericsson, an international telecommunications company based in Stockholm, Sweden, provided some of the equipment for the effort.

Dan Roswell estimates the value of the donated equipment and installation to be at several hundred-thousand dollars. “One of the representatives came down and basically unloaded a van full of routers into my minivan,” said Roswell. “And I went down to our STEM lab and sat there for three days provisioning each one of these routers off a list of the families that need them.”

Because many parents are also working from home right now, some computers that kids once used are now be off limits in many households. That’s added another wrinkle, and school personnel have been distributing additional Google Chromebooks as well as routers at bus stop sites throughout the city.

For students who have internet access through Xfinity, cost can still be a barrier. Roswell says Xfinity agreed to provide free high-speed internet to families who need it and so far he says about 100 have signed up.

For more about how COVID-19 has brought attention to disparities in internet access across Vermont, head here.

Patricia Aigner, Director of Technology for the Rutland City Public Schools says they’ve been working as quickly as possible to identify any students still not able to connect remotely. “I sat in on three faculty meetings this morning, the first one starting at 7:30 a.m. Teachers are connecting every day as faculty. They’re determining which kids need support, and they’re calling parents directly; calling, emailing and sending out alert calls.”

Sally Stacom, a fourth-grade teacher in Rutland said her class has already benefited from the technology donations. She said three of her students now have free high-speed internet and eight were able to pick up Chromebooks.

Stacom said making sure all 23 of her students have what they need to learn does more than just help them academically. “We can check in with them because we can actually see what they’re working on, or if I see that a student hasn’t signed in, I will contact the home either by email or by phone.”

She said that helps her keep a finger on the pulse of how her students are doing right now, as well as on how they’re learning. 

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