August 8, 2019 10:57:09 AM
The Columbus Municipal School District and Columbus Light and Water boards are moving forward with a combined effort to provide all district students with free internet access at home.
During a presentation to the CMSD board of trustees at a special-call review meeting Wednesday, CLW general manager Todd Gale gave trustees and Superintendent Cherie Labat details about the costs the district would incur to provide internet access, as well as the logistics of such a plan.
The initial idea, which was proposed by CMSD board members last October after a recommendation from the Lowndes County Foundation's education committee, was that CMSD would pay CLW to use its existing fiber optic cable network to provide internet to students. Since then, Gale and CLW board members have been evaluating the feasibility of such an initiative and have been getting together cost estimates.
"We looked at where the majority of students living in the district are and identified five areas where we think the internet would be the most used," Gale said. "And we found that we would only have to run about two miles of cable in addition to what we already have. So it is very possible to make this happen."
CLW's proposed plan is to broadcast the internet provided by the district from five sites: the Boys and Girls Club building on 14th Avenue North; the Townsend, Propst Park and Sandfield community centers; and the East Columbus Gym. Gale estimates that internet access from these five sites would reach a mile to a mile-and-a-half in every direction. Students could access the internet from these sites with the same the password they use at school, and would have to abide by school district internet use policies. There would be internet regulations in place similar to the school's on-site internet access, including blocking certain websites like Youtube and other streaming sites that could potentially contain harmful content, Labat said.
Gale was only able to provide a rough estimate of the cost to CMSD of the equipment and fiber optic cables needed to provide internet service, both of which would be leased from CMSD. The district would spend about $1,600 monthly -- $100,000 over five years -- plus would incur the additional cost of other district expenses that may come from providing the internet service. Labat told board members and The Dispatch that district officials are still calculating what that cost will be and hope to have an estimate by September.
CMSD Board President Jason Spears questioned if CMSD could provide internet service to a smaller group of sites -- maybe only three -- if CMSD finds that students aren't accessing the internet from one or more of the sites. Gale said that's possible, but CLW selected those five locations to help CMSD reach the most students.
"We chose five locations, and those five in particular, because that's the number it would take to give students adequate coverage given where they live," Gale said. "We wanted to make sure we were giving the maximum amount of access possible."
Gale said he will write up a memorandum of understanding between CMSD and CLW and present at the next CLW board meeting. Meanwhile, CMSD will continue to collect the final cost estimate to present at a future board meeting.
"With a relatively small cost, to be able to provide such an essential service to students, I'm really excited about that," Spears said. "I'm looking forward to next steps."
Investing in access
Labat and Spears both believe providing internet access to district students is a way of leveling the playing field.
"You don't think about the internet as something that some people don't have, especially in this age," Labat said. "But we're in an area where students are often under-served. Providing them with internet will give them the capacity to exceed above what they may have been able to otherwise."
When CMSD first began discussing the possibility of providing internet to students outside of school buildings, Spears was excited at the possibility of using a resource that goes unused for large portions of the day to the benefit of the students. He said that sentiment still remains, especially as the district continues to place emphasis on equipping students to do their best work.
"I think this kind of investment outside of the classroom will have an immeasurable impact," he said. "We're investing in students in a way that will help them learn even when they're not in these walls."
Labat added that CMSD administration has been trying to be more aware of the discrepancies in "digital equity" throughout the district. Through initiatives such as One to One, where laptop computers are provided to Columbus High School students for at-home use, and through this internet provision plan, she hopes to close that gap between students who have internet at home and those who don't in an effort to make it one less barrier standing between students and their potential.
"We believe in digital equity," she said. "We believe that students should have the opportunity to use the technology that runs the world. And if providing internet access is a way we can do it, then we're going to try our best to provide it."
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