Magdalena Fernandez no longer worries whether her daughter can connect to the internet and join her online kindergarten class thanks to new equipment from Patterson Joint Unified School District.
Instead of dealing with unreliable connections, the Fernandez family and about 500 other households began accessing the district internet network last week for free.
At this point of the $2 million project with Motorola Solutions, Assistant Superintendent Jeffrey Menge said the network can reach about 70% of households registered with the district. School leaders aim to expand the network’s range to ensure all of the district’s 6,000 students can access it from home, Menge said, referencing community need. About 14% of district households lack broadband internet and 17% of families live below the poverty line, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
Before she picked up the district internet equipment, Fernandez said she connected her daughter Cataleya’s school laptop to a cell phone mobile hot spot. The unstable connection often required her to reset it in between caring for her 2-year-old child, Fernandez said. A couple of times technical difficulties forced Fernandez to call Apricot Valley Elementary School and tell staff Cataleya could not get online for the day.
“It wasn’t fair that her internet sucked and everyone else was on there,” Fernandez said, noting how Cataleya got upset when she missed kindergarten.
But since they set up the district device on the kitchen windowsill, the spot closest to the broadband tower at Apricot Valley, Fernandez said distance learning is easier. Cataleya and her 14-year-old aunt, a ninth grader at Patterson High School, both access the district network via the same device without issues.
“It’s a stress reliever not having to worry about it every day,” Fernandez said.
The family also bought broadband internet service a few days before getting the free district internet equipment, but she said the internet kept crashing when the girls tried to use it for school. Other families described similar issues with internet access.
Patterson school families share gratitude
Yolanda Bonilla paid about $80 a month for home internet, but she said the connection still failed during online classes for her two daughters and grandson. Her sixth-grader Karen, 1st grader Mario and kindergartner Serena sometimes all needed to log in and out after the audio or video froze. The family had intermittent internet issues before the coronavirus pandemic, but Bonilla said it became a problem when the children began simultaneously signing into live instruction video calls.
So, Bonilla welcomed email notifications from Creekside Middle and Las Palmas Elementary Schools, saying they lived within the district internet network’s range. She picked up the device in a drive-through the week of Jan. 11 and hooked it up with the included instructions. Bonilla said it was simple and she did not need to call the district help line, which offers assistance in English and Spanish.
The family canceled its home plan, Bonilla said, and is grateful the kids can do their schoolwork with the district network. They reserve the network for education to try to ensure the best connection possible, she said, and use cell phone data for other online activities.
“I tell the kids ‘this is for your school work,’ ‘I want you guys to do your homework,’ and I haven’t heard them saying anything to me about how their computer got frozen or it’s not working.” Bonilla said. “I don’t hear anyone saying ‘Mom!’ at the back of the hallway.”
But families can use the school internet for other daily tasks, Menge said. The district network filters out inappropriate websites and data-intensive services such as Netflix in the same way it blocks students from seeing adult content while using school internet on campus, he said.
“Other than that it’s certainly a resource for families to use for things other than just education,” Menge said. “There’s obviously other needs that a family has: paying bills, doing job applications and all those types of things. “
Each household internet equipment kit cost the district about $100, which was a deal for buying 2,000 of them in the $2 million project, Menge said. Students need the kits to access the district network because they include required SIM cards. Menge added each device gives households an internet speed of 60 to 100 megabits per second, a rate that can cost families about $50 per month if they buy a similar service plan.
To qualify for district internet, Menge said students only need to live within the current range of broadband towers at schools and rural areas. Ten towers extend the district network and were installed in the last few months of 2020. The range of each tower varies from a half a mile in places with many two-story houses to two and a half miles in the countryside, Menge said.
District extends internet to rural community
District leaders plan to double the coverage area of most internet towers over the summer, Menge said. The broadband equipment is currently mounted on 30-foot poles, Menge said, and crews can swap them for 60-foot poles. School campus construction above 30 feet requires state approval that can take at least six months, Menge said, so the district is temporarily using shorter poles.
While the coronavirus pandemic brought up an immediate need for home internet, the district began looking for ways to connect families about two years ago. Patterson partnered with Motorola Solutions, becoming the first school district in the nation to fully deploy the company’s Nitro technology for distance learning, a Motorola spokesperson said in an email. Other companies have developed similar technology, which use Citizen’s Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) radios and private long-term evolution (LTE) networks.
Other districts using the Motorola Solutions devices include Belpre City Schools in Belpre, Ohio, and Pittsburg Community Schools in Pittsburg, Kansas, the spokesperson said. The latter has a distant town locale, similar to how the National Center for Education Statistics classifies Patterson Joint Unified as serving a fringe town area.
For some families living in the rural Westley area and attending Grayson Elementary School, accessing reliable internet has long been a struggle. Students enrolled in the school were the first to get the district internet kits because of the greater need.
Staff distributed the equipment to families around late September and early October, said Grayson Principal Sandra Villasenor. Maria Saldana received one of the kits for her daughter Jessica, who is in fifth grade. Before then, Saldana said a neighbor allowed her daughter to connect to his internet, but she felt guilty using it. Sometimes Saldana drove Jessica to her sister’s house in Patterson, about 15 minutes away, to do online school.
Before the pandemic, Saldana said she canceled a home internet plan because it was extremely slow and did not work well. She requested to restore the service when distance learning began, but Saldana said she never got off the wait list.
Nowadays, her daughter helps her use the district internet to join online parent English Learner Advisory Committee meetings. They only lost connection once, Saldana said, during a network update after school one day.
Haydee Preciado, another Grayson Elementary School parent, also said the district internet makes a difference for her sons. Her family upgraded its satellite internet to a more expensive service before they got the district internet kit, but it still did not provide a connection strong enough for online classes.
“I just want to thank the district for caring enough to make sure all the students had internet and were able to attend virtual classes,” Preciado said.
Other efforts to close the so-called digital divide, the lack of reliable internet access in rural and low-income areas, include a proposed state bill. State Sen. Anna Caballero, who represents Patterson, introduced a bill last month that would require California departments to identify potential public-private partnerships for broadband network development.