Albemarle County Public Schools has been installing tens of thousands of feet of fiber optic cable across the county in recent years to connect school campuses, and the division also has installed antenna arrays to begin rollout of a project that would provide free wireless internet access to its students at home.
The school division is looking to increase efforts for both projects this year, according to a report presented to the School Board on Thursday by Vince Scheivert, chief information officer of the division.
The plan includes installing an additional 65,000 feet of fiber optic cable across the school division in 2018 and reaching 1,000 households with the wireless broadband effort by the start of the next school year. Universal broadband connectivity throughout the county for each student could be achieved by 2020, Scheivert said.
He referred to these two efforts, and others like them, as the hidden projects in the school division.
“There are things that go on, invisible to teachers and students and administrators, but it’s absolutely crucial for the type of work that they’re trying to be able to do,” he said.
The fiber optic construction project began a few years ago. In 2012, there was only about 500 feet of fiber used by the entire county school division.
Since then, approximately 65,000 feet of fiber has been installed at school campuses across Albemarle.
“What we’re in the process of doing is a one-time capital outlay that’ll drastically reduce the overall operational budget but basically future-proof the school division for the next 50 years in terms of capacity,” Scheivert said.
The other project, the broadband rollout — also known as Albemarle All Access — is intended to provide broadband internet access to all county school division students from their homes, especially in areas where internet access isn’t as reliable.
Access to broadband internet is particularly limited in the northern and southern areas of the county, most notably in the White Hall, Scottsville and Samuel Miller districts.
That can be partially chalked up to smaller population density and somewhat difficult geography and terrain in those areas. Broadband access is an issue that the county and state have been looking to improve for some time.
Based on a survey of students in the division in 2016, about 70 percent have access to true internet at home, meaning they have access to the internet, and not just through a smartphone.
This means that, of the nearly 13,800 students in the division, there are potentially about 4,100 students who lack true broadband access.
In 2012, no equipment existed for the broadband project. But as of this year, the county school division is operating equipment at Carter Mountain and a few school sites, and it has deployed equipment in the Southwood community that is providing wireless internet access in that area.
When it is fully deployed, Scheivert said, students would be able to connect to the same wireless network they have in school from home.
Both School Board Chairwoman Kate Acuff and Superintendent Pam Moran talked about how this access could work toward eliminating any opportunity gaps that exist because of location or socioeconomic status.
“What it will do is it will allow kids to be able to get on our network, using our filtering systems, using all of our resources,” Moran said. “So if you need to get into the library catalog, you’ll be able to go right into that.”
In addition to these two updates, Scheivert outlined the progress made in other areas concerning data storage and network speeds. Most of what he discussed has been done since 2012.
Pam Moynihan, the Rio District’s board member, has served on the School Board for nearly 16 years and said the changes in technology have been the biggest she’s seen in the division during her time on the board.
“In 16 years, we went from literally what was like the Stone Age to the modern world, and that’s impressive for our system,” she said.