In the fall, when Ryllee Mitchell, a marketing teacher at King William High School, told her students to visit a website for an online assignment, she’d have to set aside time for them to stare at their computers and wait.
“The first person that hit enter would probably get there and it would slowly trickle away,” she said.
Students and teachers in King William County Public Schools had a 25-year-old Verizon fiber internet connection. Although every high school student in the county received a Chromebook computer last year to enhance their instruction, they’d often spend more time waiting for them to buffer than using them to learn.
But in one of the final steps of the county’s internal effort to get the district digitally connected, schools upgraded to gigabit-speed internet in February.
Through a federal program called E-rate, the district applied for a grant in October 2017 based on the free and reduced-price lunch population at its schools. Most of the new connection is funded by the program, and the rest was left to the school district.
The fiber-optic internet service provider Lumos Networks, now rebranded as Segra, put in a bid to provide fiber up Route 360 and down Route 30.
The district went from 200 megabits per second in two separate Verizon fiber connections to a full gigabit per second, with all schools on the same fiber ring.
For perspective, homes with a Verizon Fios link have a network speed of about 50 megabits per second, said Nicholas Cammarano, the district’s director of technology.
Both teachers and students couldn’t use the internet during state-run testing, such as Standards of Learning or SOL testing.
“So we were consistently hitting our capacity and it would slow the internet down when we hit capacity,” Cammarano said. “It couldn’t be used in the classroom during testing, which is quite a few times throughout the year. And even outside of that if we had a lot of teachers and students using those resources anyway, we’d still hit that capacity.”
So far, the schools haven’t hit the network’s peak and have a lot of spare room for future growth, Cammarano said.
“Internally, we’ve been working for the past couple years to redo all of our internal connections and our network. This was one of the last steps,” Cammarano said. “We still have some additional WiFi upgrades that need to take place. We’re looking to upgrade all the way up to one access point per classroom in all three schools.”
Savannah Rook, a junior at King William High School, said the network connection was disorganized before the switch. And while it’s not perfect now, they don’t spend a lot of time waiting for content to load.
“When everybody was on it at one time it would stop working. The video chatting didn’t always work, sometimes it will go out. It’s not perfect, it’s better than before,” Rook said. “It will probably improve for SOLs, too, because normally when we take SOLs we cannot get on the internet at all for anything.”
And Mitchell said the new connection has affected instructors in their ability to assign online work. She no longer has to waste time waiting for students to gain access to the same website.
“I think the biggest thing is before, if you assigned an entire class to go to one certain website or to do one certain assignment online and they would all try to go to that website at one time, it wouldn’t happen,” Mitchell said. “But now I haven’t had that issue. It’s not as much downtime between assigning something and them actually getting to do it. They all get right on it right now.”
The broadband network connection also extended to county administrative buildings on March 27.
But when many students go home, they still don’t have reliable access to the internet. The county’s Economic Development Authority is working toward providing the same service to residents and businesses through a partnership with Atlantic Broadband. The issue will be discussed at the authority’s upcoming meeting at 7 p.m. May 8.
Martin can be reached at (757)-243-3685, by email at email@example.com or on Twitter at @SaraRoseMartin.