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Albemarle schools technology staff breaks 'all kind of records' during first week

As Albemarle County kicked off its virtual school year last week, the technology department was still waiting on a shipment of 1,660 iPads to give out to the division’s first- and second-graders.

By week’s end, they finally had a delivery time and day: 4 p.m. Monday. Once they are delivered, staff will work to process them into inventory, put each iPad into cases and then distribute them to schools. The goal is to have iPads delivered by the end of this week or sooner.

“We’re gonna hit the ground running next week and do our best to get those processed,” Christine Diggs, the division’s chief technology officer, said in an interview Friday.

In the meantime, Diggs said students in need of a device for online classes received a division laptop.

“I’ve heard [the Department of] Student Learning saythat these first two weeks are getting acquainted, getting oriented and getting acclimated,” Diggs told School Board members Thursday. “So, the sooner we can get them in there and they have their iPads, I think will be really good.”

Devices and internet connectivity are vital for student success this school year in which most of the division’s students are starting the year virtually. The division has distributed 1,152 WiFi hotspots to help families because broadband internet access is not consistent across Albemarle.

“That doesn’t mean that every single one of those is meeting the needs of students,” Diggs said, adding that families are still working with their schools to improve their internet access.

Overall, Diggs said the first week of school went as well as she hoped it would. The division’s central service desk handled more than 1,200 calls for technology support, most of which dealt with the typical issues they see each school year.

“We broke all kinds of records,” Diggs said of the service desk calls, which doesn’t include calls made to individual schools for help. “It took a village, and everyone was there to help respond.”

Despite the increased volume, the issues were generally solvable, Diggs said. For example, families called to have passwords reset, gain access to SeeSaw and get help finding links. Staff also dealt with hardware issues. The most common one was that the computer’s audio wasn’t working.

On the second day of school, parents reported issues with Schoology, the division’s learning management system for middle and high schools. Diggs said there was a communication issue between Schoology and the student information system, PowerSchool, which made it so students couldn’t see their courses in Schoology.

That issue lasted for about an hour and a half and was fixed internally.

Responding to issues with internet access was a big focus of the first week, which was the first real test of families’ home internet or the hotspots, which use a cell signal in the area to connect to the web.

The division defines having internet access as the ability for students to stream audio and video at the same time.

Those who don’t have good enough internet were invited to school buildings, and Diggs said she expects they’ll be seeing more students coming into the schools to do their online learning.

“There’s also the families that are realizing that I’m not going to be able to get a signal no matter which carrier I have,” she said.

On the first day of school, the division was expecting about 400 students to come into the buildings for online classes because they don’t have internet access at home.

The Kajeet hotspots can connect with different cellular service providers, but families do need to try out different hotspots to find the carrier that works for them.

“There’s that back and forth right now trying to get it right,” Diggs said.

Diggs added that the schools are working with families to see if they need more than one hotspot in the household. Initially, the division handed out one per student per school, so siblings at an elementary school, for example, would only get one.

“Is the one sufficient for two students? In those cases, it would be,” Diggs said. “It’s when they start going to three or more students that we may be giving them an additional hotspot.”

For now, the division isn’t ordering more hotspots, opting to wait to see how things work out. Diggs said they can pause new orders because they haven’t had issues getting the hotspots they need, and their provider is turning orders around quickly. Many school systems across the country haven’t had such luck and have been dealing with back orders.

For example, in the week before school started, the need for hotspots was increasing quickly and the division placed two orders for 350 hotspots. For the first order placed Aug. 31 for 250 devices, hotspots were in schools two days later.

“That truly was amazing,” Diggs said. “… We were trying to stay in tune with the data as it was coming in because we didn’t want to overbuy. They’re expensive, and it’s a 10-month commitment that we’re doing on these unlimited data plans.”

As the first week of school progressed, Diggs said the central service desk saw fewer and fewer calls each day.

“And so that’s exactly what we wanted to have happen,” she said. “So our service desk is getting a little room to breathe, as well, which is good.”


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