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.
“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.
“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.”
Internet access has “got to be in the home,” Young said. “That’s where it’s needed.”
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.
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.
“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.
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.
“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.”
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.
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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