Back to school, carefully

Fully Charged

Hey it's Josh. Things first got hectic for Andrew Moore, the chief information officer of the Boulder Valley School District in Colorado, in March, after students in the district had just been sent home through the end of spring break. At the time, he said he was hustling to get students at the district's 56 schools ready for online class through May or June. After six months, everyone is still at home.

When the first students return on Tuesday, it doesn't mark the end of the challenge, but a shift to a new phase.

Each school district in the country has its own pandemic-related challenges. Boulder Valley includes mountainous areas that are hard to wire for broadband. And just as schools begin their first partial step towards reopening, Boulder has become the Colorado county with the highest rates of new Covid-19 cases, mostly because of an outbreak at the University of Colorado.

But in other ways Moore's district is in better shape than most. More than 90% of the households it serves already had internet access, compared to 85% nationwide, according to a 2018 Pew Research Center analysis. Boulder Valley also serves a population that is wealthier and more educated than the country as a whole; its spending per student is almost exactly average for Colorado school districts. And it runs its own fiber network to some school buildings.

Another key advantage is that the district has an IT guy like Moore, who was focused on building out online learning capacity before that was the only option. After a career that included over a decade at Sun Microsystems, Moore spent six years as the mayor of Erie, Colorado, before moving into his current position in 2010. He spent this spring buying and distributing about 200 mobile WiFi hot spots for students, and getting the district to foot the bill for Comcast Corp.'s low-cost internet service. He also helped design a video-chatting device consisting of a tripod, camera, microphone and large video screen that is being deployed to about 1,600 classrooms. 

"When we left school in May we were feeling pretty good," said Moore, adding that the district had fewer than a dozen kids who had no internet access at home at all. "Fast forward to today, and we're finding that our main problem is inadequate internet. That's a much harder problem to solve." This dovetails with observations from other broadband experts, who say that official statistics understate issues with connectivity because bare-bones internet service is often not up to the task of bandwidth-heavy applications like long video conferences.

At first, in-person classes in Boulder Valley will be held only four days a week for kindergartners through second graders, along with all students at a handful of elementary schools in the corners of the district where internet access is most challenging. The district is also encouraging what Moore calls "drive-in internet," where students can set up in cars in a parking lot and do their remote learning from there.

Up next, he's working on a kind of remote-learning-from-school model, where students will sit in more easily ventilated areas like gymnasiums, and be instructed remotely by teachers elsewhere in the building. A plan to build outdoor classrooms on football fields has been complicated by difficulties getting reliable wireless signals. 

The whole thing seems like a kludge, but one that Moore says is working well enough to help get Boulder Valley through for now. "We've done a good job with the resources we have, and we have better resources than many other school districts," he said. One by one, he's working with each school to try to get kids online or in class without spreading a deadly virus. There are about 13,600 districts in the country doing the same thing. Joshua Brustein

If you read one thing

Amazon made a handful of product announcements, centered on the unveiling of its new camera-toting drone designed to fly around your house investigating suspicious activity. Amazon has been working on home surveillance drones for awhile, but that didn't prevent the indignant dystopian takes. The company also showed off a new game-streaming service and spherical voice-controlled speakers. 

And here's what you need to know in global technology news

Facebook removed three Russian disinformation efforts, which sought to manipulate public opinion in several countries but didn't directly target the U.S. election. 

DoorDash added a board member as it prepares to go public, and U.K.-based delivery service Deliveroo is also eying an IPO

While social networks struggle with QAnon, Wired reports that Reddit got rid of followers of the conspiracy theory without even trying. 


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