Closed School Weighs Hot Spots and Fiber to Reach Rural Students

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The Berne Knox Westerlo Central School District in upstate New York is closed and has its students working from home. In this case, however, since most households do not have adequate internet access, students are encouraged to gather in the parking lot and library to get connected, reports WRGB-TV. The school district has struggled to find a more efficient way to keep its kids connected to their virtual classrooms. 

The school district continues to investigate different options and acknowledges that a permanent solution is necessary. There is a cell tower in the area, but by itself, it does not have the power to reach the whole region. Unless a second tower is built, residents have to find creative ways to boost the signal that they have.

“It concerns me because every day we’re without, my students have the potential of falling behind their peers down in the suburbs and the urban areas,” said Superintendent Timothy Mundell. “So this is a real equity issue for us and we want to make sure rural areas get served.”  

In the short term, the school responded by creating WiFi hotspots, like the school parking lot. The school also drove hotspot vehicles to different locations around the district to attempt to reach more remote students. “They were strategically located so families could come to those Suburbans and sit outside or in their car doing their homework and getting the signal,” Mundell explained. 

Some families have been able to take advantage of a deal between the school district, and the Albany County Legislature and Hudson Valley Wireless. These 50 households can receive a Hudson Valley Wireless transceiver to pull in the available cell tower signal. An additional 20 families have Kajeet hotspot devices at home, courtesy of Capital Region BOCES. Superintendent Mundell spoke of the desirability of fiber optic cable broadband, but this long term wish list item won’t address current shortfalls. 

“The reality is that broadband is no longer a luxury. This is a basic infrastructure need, just like water, sewer, electric and roads, and without it we’re not going to be able to expand,” said New York State Senator George Borrello.  

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