Fulton County Schools opened its 2020-2021 school year Aug. 17 with all students fully remote and the school district’s IT department prepared by tripling the bandwidth that was available during virtual learning in the spring.

Bandwidth determines how much information can be transferred, while speed is how fast the information can be received or downloaded.

The school system had 12 GB of bandwidth available in the spring, but was using up to 14 GB during summer school with far fewer students enrolled in courses. With all students taking regular classes online, more bandwidth was needed to handle the larger volume of data, particularly with the live video streams necessary to hold classes.

“To support universal remote learning, IT has increased internet service to 37 GB of total service,” Emily Bell, interim chief information officer, told the Board of Education during its Aug. 13 meeting.

Bell said to assure the school district can meet the demand of video streaming and larger volumes of students and teachers accessing the FCS system, the next step will expand the bandwidth to 60 GB. But that will take additional equipment and installation, she said.

Board member Kimberly Dove asked what plans are in place to handle problems since FCS can’t rely on the bandwidth being sufficient.

Superintendent Mike Looney said the school district can control its own bandwidth to enable access to information from the district and the ability to livestream classes. But another point of failure is the bandwidth capabilities at the students’ homes. Looney told the board he asked local internet service providers to help assure students have enough bandwidth to access the school system’s portal, which he said is not in the school district’s control.

If problems still arise, FCS may need to adopt staggered login times as other school districts have done. “We may lean into that if we have difficulties,” Bell said. 

Bell said in the three days prior to the meeting, 3,000 devices had been distributed. All students might not have devices until after the first week of classes, she said. Devices are handed out following social distancing practices, which requires separate appointments for parents to pick up the devices, which makes a quicker distribution difficult.

Bell said distribution includes Wi-Fi hotspots, which IT staff learned support at most two connected devices.

“Some of our families that need it have more than two kids that would need to log on at once, board member Gail Dean said.

“We no longer have the model of one hotspot per family or household,” Bell said.

Now the plan is to aim for a 1-to-1 ratio of students to hotspots, but never more than two students per hotspot.

Schools where all students qualify for free lunch, including Lake Forest Elementary in Sandy Springs, also make the students eligible for hotspots, if they can demonstrate the need by their families. Bell said three FCS departments are working together to make sure students whose families demonstrate the need get hotspots as soon as possible. Social workers were reaching out to families, including homeless and foster students. The federal program department was monitoring the needs, placing orders for more hotspots and organizing the logistics to distribute them.

Board member Katha Stuart said FCS learned that families whose students qualify for free and reduced lunch also qualify for a hotspot if it’s needed. So a note to inform parents about this was included on the online application for the lunch program.

The IT department’s hotline has been answering up to 800 calls a day for troubleshooting or hotspot requests, Bell said. The hotline is available at 470-254-2300.

The school district held a practice login session on Aug. 14, asking students and teachers from three high schools chosen for their geographic locations to login for a 15-minute test of a live session.

Parents weren’t left out of the planning. Chief Academics Officer Cliff Jones said training videos were prepared for parents to understand how to access the portals and systems for their children to help them as well.

“These lessons have been incorporated into the universal remote learning guidelines and training,” Jones said.

School board president Julia Bernath asked if the videos can be accessed online and Jones said they were available on the school district’s website.

Bob Pepalis

Bob Pepalis covers Sandy Springs for Reporter Newspapers.