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Educationby Ian Round12:11 pmJul 17, 20200

Student internet access pilot making modest progress – amid massive need

A nonprofit is helping expand some schools’ WiFi using mesh networks, but it’s just one small part of Baltimore’s struggle to bridge a deep digital divide

Above: Continuing coronavirus fears mean online classes again for many Baltimore students, about half of whom lack internet access. (Fern Shen)

A pilot project expanding four schools’ WiFi networks into surrounding neighborhoods is seeing positive initial results, a nonprofit internet service provider says.

Project Waves has connected 43 households to free internet using mesh networks through its partnership with the Baltimore City Public School System, founder Adam Bouhmad reports. Technical installation is complete at two schools and is underway at two others.

“The general sentiment has been great,” he told The Brew. “We’ve been moving very fast to connect families.”

Mesh networks are a relatively inexpensive way to connect households to the internet, compared to the infrastructure costs of broadband. By the end of the fiscal year, Bouhmad wants to connect 600 households through the partnership.

But their effort alone won’t come close to meeting the challenge of this moment:

Parents and teachers fearful of Covid-19 risks are pressing for an online-only first semester to educate children living in a city sorely lacking in connectivity.

The U.S. Census Bureau in 2013 rated Baltimore one of the worst cities for internet access, estimating more than 74,000 homes were not online. At a school board meeting earlier this year, Commissioner Vernon Reid said nearly half of Baltimore’s 79,000 students lack access.

“It will take a minute”

Project Waves’ head of operations, Samantha Musgrave talked about accomplishments. She said at least one Southwest Baltimore family whose only obstacle to obtaining health coverage was that it lacked an internet connection now has it.

When the project extended Lakeland Elementary/Middle School’s network to their home, they finally got coverage, Musgrave said.

But house-by-house progress is all they can report at the moment. As the coronavirus pandemic causes unconnected students to lose ground, City Schools has had to shoulder much of the burden of compensating for immense technology inequities.

The mesh network pilot is one of “myriad” ways City Schools is attempting to bridge Baltimore’s digital divide, said Alison Perkins-Cohen, chief of staff to schools CEO Sonja Santelises.

“This is not an immediate solution,” Perkins-Cohen told The Brew. “It will take a minute to test this and get it off the ground . . . But we’re hoping that through these myriad solutions, WiFi access will be available to all students.”

Among those other strategies, Santelises announced earlier this month, is the $1.4 million purchase of 10,000 WiFi hotspots, which will be distributed to households according to their need, beginning with summer school students.

North Avenue has also purchased and distributed thousands of Chromebooks, and the City Council passed a bill allowing Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young to give $3 million from the Baltimore Children and Youth Fund to the schools.

Balky Landlords

Santelises and her staff have given families the option of a fully-online first semester or a “hybrid model,” combining online learning with some in-person instruction.

“One thing we’ve heard resoundingly from parents is they want choice in the fall,” Perkins-Cohen said.

State and local teachers’ unions and the Maryland PTA, meanwhile, have declared which option they choose – distance learning.

“If we open our schools too quickly and without adequate safety precautions, the result will be that some educators, students, and their family members will contract the coronavirus,” they said in a letter to state officials.

That’s putting more pressure on efforts like the Waves project, which is running up against its share of challenges. Asked if he’s encountered landlords who don’t want Project Waves to install the equipment, Bouhmad said, “There’s an obvious answer, yes.”

“We’re not taking down walls or something,” she added. “It’s just a very small mount.”

They’ve also had trouble communicating with non-English speakers and have encountered residents who are simply skeptical.

And, ironically, it’s been hard to get the word out because of the very reason they need to get the word out:

They can’t reach people online.
Find more info on how to obtain a device and/or a hotspot here and see City Schools’ reopening plan here. Students can pick up materials between 10 and 6 Tuesdays and Thursdays. Masks and a student ID are required, and students under 18 need to be accompanied by an adult.

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