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Technology takes on new importance in COVID-era

District tries to keep students connected for online education

Rhuie Ryan answers the phone in the technology office in the Fairfield Community School District’s Central Office. The department has been busy this year with all students needing to access the internet from home to complete their coursework. (Photo courtesy of John Grunwald)
Rhuie Ryan answers the phone in the technology office in the Fairfield Community School District’s Central Office. The department has been busy this year with all students needing to access the internet from home to complete their coursework. (Photo courtesy of John Grunwald)
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FAIRFIELD — Fairfield Community School District’s technology office has perhaps never been busier.

Providing laptops, tablets and internet access to the district’s students is a critical part of their education. In other years, those things might be conveniences, but this year they are indispensable. The district has spent most of the year in a hybrid model, offering a combination of in-person and online coursework. But since mid-November, the district has been online only and plans to stay that way through at least Dec. 11.

District Technology Director John Grunwald said the district had to purchase 400 iPads over the summer to ensure that all elementary students had one to take home. It also purchased 500 batteries for laptops that Grunwald had planned to keep at the school and charged overnight, but with so many students needing to take them home, they needed an upgrade.

“Those were unexpected costs we didn’t think we’d have before COVID hit,” Grunwald said.

Grunwald said his department has had to be creative in troubleshooting broken machines. The district is trying to limit face-to-face contact, so students with a problem computer have to drop it off at the central office where the technology department is. The department’s technicians work on the machines as fast as they can and try to return them to the students that same day.

Grunwald has two technicians working for him plus a tech secretary to handle setting up appointments and do some troubleshooting herself.

“We have three people working on this stuff all the time,” Grunwald said. “I’m doing a lot of the paperwork and watching budgets, while they’re doing the manual fixing.”

Grunwald said his department used to share a secretary with the curriculum office, but his department has been so swamped that he needed a secretary whose sole purpose was to help the technology office.

“I feel blessed to have this extra secretary position,” Grunwald said. “Some schools don’t have such a robust department. If I only had one or two people, things would be delayed quite a bit.”

One of the challenges this year has been connecting all students to the internet. Not all families in the district have internet, so Grunwald has to figure out a way to get it to them. Grunwald starts by inquiring whether their house is connected to LISCO. If not, LISCO will install a line to the house. The company covers the cost of construction while the district covers the fees.

“LISCO has been very good to work with,” Grunwald said.

A temporary option for families without internet is to rely on a “hot spot,” which is a mobile internet connection that transmits data using cellphone towers rather than a wired internet connection. Grunwald said he has a limited number of hot spots, about 40, so he gives those to families without internet to use while a wired connection to their home is being set up.

“Our waiting list is down to two or three families [for hot spots],” Grunwald said.

Grunwald noted that some students in the district live in a rural part of the county with spotty internet connection. He said the district’s priority is delivering internet to students with no access at all, but it is also trying to deliver quality internet to students with poor connections.