Chromebook web issues

Madison School District-issued student Chromebooks have been unable to access the internet while students are at school so far this year following summer wireless network upgrades.

An overhaul of the Madison School District’s wireless internet system this summer is leaving student Chromebooks disconnected as the 2019-20 school year begins.

According to an email sent to some staff on Monday, Sept. 16, “multiple issues with the wireless network have become apparent” since students returned to school and began using district assigned Chromebooks.

District executive director of building and administrative services Chad Wiese confirmed in an email that approximately 25,000 students with Chromebooks are sometimes unable to access internet while at school. He told The Cap Times later Tuesday the issue "certainly hasn't impacted every single classroom," but issues include slow or dropped internet.

Wiese said the most significant issue has been at Madison Memorial High School. Memorial English Department chair Chris Vander Ark wrote in an email that the lack of functioning WiFi was "pretty challenging" during the first week of school, but it has since improved.

"The situation definitely got in the way of students using the Chromebooks," Vander Ark wrote. "The district has addressed this and we're in much better shape now. We're still working out the kinks, but it feels like we're in a functional place to have students use these for a range of different tasks."

The district has been consulting “high expertise” external engineers and involving the manufacturer’s engineering team, the email to staff states. Wiese wrote that the current cost of those consultants is approximately $4,000.

“To date, solutions have not been determined,” the staff email states. “The troubleshooting process is ongoing and complex, and everyone's frustration is well understood.”

The “substantial upgrade” this summer replaced “nearly all of the hardware supporting wired and wireless networking,” involving close to 1,000 switches and 1,600 wireless access points, the email states. It was needed to implement the new phone and security systems in the district.

An October 2018 newsletter item on the MMSD website outlines the system upgrades being installed, including additional cameras, door upgrades and a new VoIP phone system that includes “mass notification capabilities” like reverse 911 and classroom specific public address.

The School Board approved a $47,080 bid from Iowa-based Tri-City Electric for wireless access point upgrades at its May 20 meeting.

“There (are) several schools where the signal strength of the current access points does not provide adequate coverage,” stated a memo on the bids. “These locations will have new wiring installed and access points installed to allow better coverage for student and staff devices.”

Wiese wrote that new access points were installed in each classroom beginning this spring, and “while there were some indications of unusual wireless issues,” it was not clear how large the problem was until an access point switch to new wireless LAN controllers in August.

“It was not known to be a global issue until students began extensively using their district assigned Chromebooks as the new school year got underway,” he wrote.

There is not yet a timetable for the fix, according to the email to staff.

“While an ETA for resolution is not currently available, please know this is the highest priority work for the Technical Services department, and all resources available to us are being used,” the email states. “When further information is available, an update will be sent out.”

An earlier version of the story stated the problem was district-wide, but some teachers have since reported issues have been fixed at their schools.

Share your opinion on this topic by sending a letter to the editor to tctvoice@madison.com. Include your full name, hometown and phone number. Your name and town will be published. The phone number is for verification purposes only. Please keep your letter to 250 words or less.

Scott Girard is the local k-12 education reporter at the Cap Times. A Madison native, he joined the paper in 2019 after working for six years for Unified Newspaper Group. Follow him on Twitter @sgirard9.

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