MANCHESTER, N.H. – Manchester School District (MSD) students can once again access school Wi-Fi with personal devices, but it appears that that status quo will change sometime in the near future.
By an 8-6 vote, the Board of School Committee (BOSC) approved allowing students to once again access district Wi-Fi networks at the city’s public high schools and middle schools, with a separate vote to request competitive quotes on a possible Wi-Fi network specifically for students or potentially purchasing a computing device for every student at some point in the near future.
Manchester Central High School Student Body President Aidan O’Connell and two fellow Central students came before the board to convey their concern over the sudden move, which they said was done without consulting any students.
O’Connell and his fellow students said that the move significantly impacted students at Central, forcing several dozen students to share one computer, impacting ESL students who were reliant on Google Translate to facilitate their learning and limiting poorer students that relied on school wifi to augment the limited data networks they use to study on personal devices.
According to O’Connell, he took an impromptu survey of 50 fellow students and only one had any positive reaction to the district’s move, and that student felt that access to the district’s wifi network should be reformed rather than abolished.
Ultimately, O’Connell and his colleagues said that their fellow students were perplexed why all students were seemingly being punished for what they assumed was ill intent by a few students, meanwhile hindering the ability of all students to study an internet-driven educational framework.
That perspective was countered later in the meeting by Stephen Cross, MSD Director of Information and Technology.
Cross told the BOSC that teachers and administration had a completely different perspective on the matter from the students, with several teachers claiming portable devices reduce focus within the classroom and increase bullying. He also voiced concerns over network security from both students and non-students using outside devices and potentially infecting sensitive school systems with malware.
With security patches, Cross said that the risk of malware from private devices on school networks could be largely mitigated, but said students and parents were reticent to allow any type of security updates onto the private devices out of a misperceived notion that the MSD would be able to see data on private devices that they cannot in fact see.
And with the passage of HB 1612 last year, unless there is a separate network just for private devices brought into schools, approximately 9,000 outside devices would have to be tracked by the MSD, something he says he does not have the staff to maintain.
Cross also noted that only access by outside devices had been disallowed on MSD networks, with school provided desktops, laptops and Chromebooks still able to get online.
Ward 9 BOSC Member and BOSC Vice Chairman Arthur Beaudry believed outside access should be kept prohibited and the district should instead refocus its efforts to providing a computing device for every child.
He felt that taxpayer money should not be spent on data that could theoretically be used for non-educational purposes and he says he’s heard from teachers that students prefer time away from their devices in the classroom so they can better concentrate and avoid peer pressure regarding the latest technological trends.
Beaudry’s viewpoint was just one in a spectrum of viewpoints on the board. Like Beaudry, Ward 4 BOSC Member Leslie Want believes it’s time to provide each child with their own computing device, and that providing those devices should be an obligation of the MSD, but also said it was appropriate for students to use outside devices in designated areas.
Ward 11 BOSC Member Katie Desrochers told Cross that the WI-FI should be provided to outside devices once again, but with the security patch automatically forced onto any devices connecting, at until 1:1 device-to-student ratio can make outside devices obsolete.
Ward 8 BOSC Member Jimmy Lehoux says that parents should be sold reduced cost devices with security software already installed, which they can remove once their child graduates.
Ward 1 BOSC Member Sarah Ambrogi thought the lack of communication and higher difficulty for students to reach the internet was not a positive.
Ward 6 BOSC Member Dan Bergeron went further, saying that some students should serve to supplement the district’s IT staff as a “student help desk.”
Ward 2 BOSC Member Kathleen Kelly-Arnold sought to make a motion asking Cross to seek a request for proposals on a student-only focused network, but Mayor Joyce Craig advised against that motion, citing that a full request for proposals process could take up to six months and preclude investigation into possible 1:1 device-to-student ratio plans.
Instead, Kelly-Arnold made a motion asking Cross to seek “competitive quotes” for both a possible student-focused network or a 1:1 plan.
That motion passed by a voice vote.
As the city has already crafted a network safety plan as required by HB1612, full compliance with the legislation is not required until June 30, 2019. Although Bergeron was unsure, his vote to temporarily reinstate outside access to the network clinched the motion’s success.
Beaudry and Lehoux joined At-Large BOSC Member Richard Girard, Ward 7 BOSC Member Ross Terrio, Ward 12 BOSC Member Kelly Thomas and Ward 10 BOSC Member Kevin Avard in opposing the motion.
Bergeron joined Kelley-Arnold, Ambrogi, Want, Desrochers, Mayor Craig, Ward 3 BOSC Member Mary Ngwanda Georges and At-Large BOSC Member Pat Long in supporting the motion.
Ward 5 BOSC Member Lisa Freeman was absent.