The computer technicians of the Cumberland County school system are accustomed to making things work.
They keep more than 13,000 connected devices up and running during the school year. They have undertaken projects to upgrade internet connectivity within schools. They have helped put a device in the hands of every student from the fifth grade through high school.
This year, they were facing a tall order. In July, the decision was made to offer a virtual attendance option for students amid the ongoing COVID-19 global pandemic.
“It’s like we’ve had to reinvent the wheel,” said Kim Hassler. “And our job is not just in one box. We have to be willing to cross boundaries into other areas.”
They helped set up temperature scanning machines — new technology they had never worked with.
“Instantly, everyone starts pulling together,” Hassler said of the team of nine technicians and supervisor Elbert Farley. “We don’t allow the frustration to grab ahold of us. We just pull together.”
That included getting laptops ready to go home with students, helping teachers get their classrooms set up for virtual learning and putting together new, unfamiliar equipment.
The school system has several models of Chromebooks, each with a different charger. The team had to unwire carts where the laptops were stored at the elementary schools and match up those chargers to the proper device.
At the high school, Chromebooks are assigned to specific students, and they keep the same one during their four years. Those had to be distributed.
The Chromebooks require a Cumberland County school system email address. During the virtual learning orientation sessions, the techs were on hand to make sure everyone had the right Chromebook and that their username and passwords were up to date.
That’s on top of the other work they do throughout the year, wiring schools, installing security systems, and general repairs. They outsource very little repair work.
The techs have been providing support to parents and students learning at home, which is a new experience.
“When it’s hands on, you can do what you need to do, but talking someone through the process can be difficult,” said Chris Miller.
Chromebooks aren’t the most durable of laptops. The techs have seen any number of damaged computers they need to repair quickly so students can get back online and learning.
“I’m robbing Peter to pay Paul,” said Joey Burnett of the spare parts available.
Some laptop functions had been blocked when the computers were used primarily at school, like the cameras. But remote learning requires a functional camera. Hester said when they unblocked the cameras, some no longer worked.
The school system will soon get a delivery of about 1,200 laptops, the yearly order for the one-to-one technology initiative launched four years ago. This will provide enough laptops for every student in the fifth through 12th grades.
Federal CARES Act funds were also designated to purchase additional laptops for younger students. Farley said manufacturers are having trouble meeting skyrocketing demand for laptops as schools nationwide go to virtual learning, so that order may not arrive until April.
Farley said other school systems are experiencing similar problems.
They’ve helped to reassure teachers and help them configure their classrooms for virtual learning.
“You make sure the virtual student can see the teacher, hear the teacher,” Hassler said.
She and Tabitha Webb encouraged teachers to play the role of a student in the classroom, and walk around the classroom to see how far they could be from a microphone.
She said many teachers were overwhelmed.
“We finally set the computer on a desk and told them that was the student,” she said. “That helped calm some of them down.”
And with so many devices and so many virtual learners, there isn’t a lot of time to spend with any one issue. They need to fix what they can and move on to the next problem.
A common problem is slow internet at home.
“Most of my problems from the home is internet being slow,” said Donnie Melton.
The lessons have videos that require a fast internet connection, or it can cause lagging, buffering or it just won’t play. That’s compounded with additional learners in the home trying to be online at the same time.
The techs do what they can, checking the home internet speeds.
“When the speed comes back slow, we can’t do anything about that,” he said.
Josh Hesser said, “It’s just out of our control.”
But the department has completed several projects at the schools that have helped ensure adequate bandwidth from the school site.
“We have wired every one of our buildings ourselves,” Farley said. At Stone Memorial High School, that work saved about $100,000. “They do a heck of a job doing that. I’d put them up against anyone.”
Hesser said much of their ability to respond to the COVID-19 crisis was due to Farley’s vision of equipping schools with better wifi and pursuing a one-to-one technology initiative.
“We’re in a lot better shape than we would have been a few years ago,” he said.
The schools use ENA for its internet service. They installed commercial-grade wireless routers in every classroom that not only handle school devices, but all the phones coming into the schools.
A new wireless antennae at the Cumberland County High School field house has allowed better internet to serve that facility.
Hassler said, “I was impressed with the pre-planning.”
When schools shut down last March, the techs were at the schools making sure outside signals would be accessible. They charted which parking spaces could handle people being online.
“We always have to consider plan B,” she said. “Thank goodness we didn’t have to use that, but we were ready.”
Farley, during a meeting of his staff in early October, said, “I can’t say how proud I am of you.”
Other members of Central Services popped their head into the meeting — a rarity as the techs primarily stay at their schools taking care of work orders — to offer their thanks, as well.