Public and private schools across Long Island face intensifying demand for more high-speed internet access, driven by a growing array of electronic programs ranging from computerized testing to virtual-reality 3-D laboratories.
Dozens of districts in the region and across the state have revved up for the start of classes by expanding internet broadband capacity to levels recommended by federal and state guidelines. Those ground rules aim to encourage high-tech instruction while also narrowing a pervasive digital divide between well-funded and struggling school districts.
Growth comes at a price.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s administration has begun distributing funds for technology to districts on Long Island and elsewhere from a $2 billion bond issue approved two years ago. Many school officials have asserted, however, that the distribution of state dollars has been too slow.
Broadband capacity is measured in the number of megabits transmitted each second to students’ computers and other electronic devices. The larger a district’s enrollment, the greater the required bandwidth capacity.
Massapequa Public Schools enrolls 7,120 students and has boosted its bandwidth from 500 megabits per second last year to 800 per second this school year. The Bethpage Union Free School District, with 2,880 students, has expanded from 200 megabits to 300, while the Amagansett Union Free School District, with 111 students, has built capacity from 15 megabits to 50.
Veteran school administrators described the upgrades as a “sea change,” noting that the extra bandwidth supports far more than the desktop computers and laptops that have been a familiar sight in classrooms for decades. Increasingly, they said, students bring their smartphones into classrooms to access the web and work on assignments — a far cry from the days when many districts banned cellphone use during instruction.
“It’s changed the landscape,” said Gene Tranchino, executive director for administrative and instructional technology in the Elwood Union Free School District, who also is in charge of transportation. Tranchino explained that he has to build in wireless capacity for students who continue working on assignments with their smartphones after classes end.
“I’ve got to look at spaces — hallways, gymnasiums — that were completely outside my radar in past years,” said Tranchino, who was named Model School Administrator of the Year for 2015-16 by Western Suffolk BOCES. “The instructional resources available on the web to schools have changed enormously over the last three to five years. It’s incredible!”
One sign of the transformation: A growing number of districts are adopting Bring Your Own Device, or BYOD, policies, which allow students to use their smartphones and electronic tablets in class, as long as they use only websites screened by the district.
“At any one time, you could have 6,000 students and faculty in a school district, all using mobile learning devices,” said Joseph Innaco, director of technology and instructional services in the Bellmore-Merrick Central High School District.
The system, which operates three high schools and two middle schools, adopted a BYOD policy several years ago.
Heavy smartphone use in a school building can strain its broadband capacity. The Federal Communications Commission, which regulates interstate communications, tackled the issue in July 2014.
For starters, the agency set the goal of expanding bandwidth capacity in public and nonprofit private schools to a minimum 100 megabits per second for every 1,000 students.
The federal target for schools will rise in the 2017-18 school year to a minimum of 1 gigabit per second — which translates to about 1 billion bits of computerized information.
The FCC, also in 2014, raised to a maximum $3.9 billion the funds that could be spent nationwide each year on federal E-rate subsidies for cable and wireless connections in schools and libraries. E-rate funding is part of a federal program begun two decades ago to modernize schools and libraries across the country.
In 2015, nationwide spending totaled $3.3 billion, with $139 million going to New York State. That included $14.7 million for the Island, $8 million in Suffolk County and $6.7 million in Nassau.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, in his 2014 State of the State address, called for a new $2 billion investment in broadband capacity and other technology that would produce “the smartest classrooms in the nation.” Voters approved the so-called Smart Schools bond initiative in November 2014 by a 62 percent majority.
Under state rules, each district is allotted money that it can spend whenever it chooses, provided the district first passes an extensive state review.
To qualify, districts have to meet the FCC’s broadband standards and must agree to lend a portion of newly purchased high-tech equipment to private and parochial schools within their borders.
Cuomo’s press office began announcing recipients in May.
So far, $18.2 million in funding has been approved for 18 districts on the Island, including Amagansett, Bellmore-Merrick, Bethpage, Elwood and Massapequa. The money represents 7 percent of the region’s total allotment of $259.4 million.
Another 19 districts in Nassau and Suffolk counties have applications under review, according to the state Education Department. That brings to 37 the number of districts with applications either approved or under review, out of a total 124 systems in the region.
A spokesman for the state’s school superintendents, Robert Lowry, said the relatively small number of applicants could be traced in part to a state requirement that districts fund technology projects up front, before receiving reimbursement.
“It’s not an insurmountable obstacle, but it is a complication,” said Lowry, deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents.
Smart Schools supporters said the state’s recent announcements of funding awards totaling $18.2 million on the Island and $127 million statewide could prompt more districts to apply.
“The numbers will continue to grow as school districts talk to their neighbors,” said Morris Peters, a spokesman for the governor’s budget division.
Some local educators worry that the state’s requirement of upfront payments will discourage poorer districts from applying for Smart Schools money. They point to a wide digital divide between districts.
In 2014, a state commission reported that 276 public schools on the Island — 224 in Suffolk County, 52 in Nassau — lacked the minimum recommended bandwidth of 100 megabits per second. That encompasses 43 percent of all such schools in the region.
“There’s a widespread misconception that all those school districts are upstate, and they’re definitely not,” Elwood’s Tranchino said. “Some of them are in our own backyard.”
Elwood, which enrolls 2,060 students, has a bandwidth capacity of 200 megabits per second and plans expansion by September 2017.
Other districts are spending state funds on high-tech hardware, such as electronic blackboards known as SMARTBoards, Chromebook laptops and iPad tablets.
Carle Place, for example, already owns about 350 Chromebooks and plans to add another 100. The district also will add to its supply of electronic tablets, bringing the total new hardware investment to $74,825.
Carle Place Superintendent David Flatley said schools need to plan carefully in phasing in new equipment.
“We don’t want to buy technology that will be outdated in five years,” said Flatley, president-elect of the Nassau County Council of School Superintendents.
Island Park, meanwhile, has budgeted $236,888 in state bond money for classroom technology. That includes new SMARTBoards to replace outmoded models and computers with three-dimensional capacity, which allow students to perform science experiments in virtual reality.
On a recent Thursday, 13 Island Park administrators and teachers attended a six-hour training session in virtual-reality instruction at the district’s Lincoln Orens Middle School.
All the participants wore 3-D glasses and held electronic styluses that they used to “dissect” a variety of life-forms — fish, fowl, dinosaurs — which appeared to jump from their computer screens.
The equipment was provided by zSpace, a firm headquartered in Sunnyvale, California.
Kristiana Sefchek, who teaches seventh grade life science, said the new equipment could provide more opportunities for students to perform dissections, albeit on electronic images rather than real creatures.
Sefchek explained that actual dissections require two class periods to set up and perform, while the same experiments in virtual reality can be completed in a single period.
“I just feel it’s going to spark interest for students,” said Laurie Scimeca, the district’s director for pupil personnel services, who used her stylus to rotate and examine a beluga whale. “You actually feel like you’re a part of it.”
BACK TO SCHOOL ON LI
Public school districts across Long Island begin the 2016-17 school year this week and next.
Classes start in the Jericho district on Tuesday and in 12 other districts — with 11 of those in Nassau County — on Thursday.
The remaining 111 systems on the Island have their first day of school after Labor Day, either on Sept. 6, 7 or 8.
To see the list, by district, go to newsday.com/data.
MEGABITS VS. MEGABYTES
The term megabits, used by Federal Communications Commission regulators and other technology experts, refers to a million bits of computerized information that are being transmitted each second.
The data transfer rate of megabits per second often is abbreviated as “Mbps.”
The term is not to be confused with megabytes, a measure applied to the volume of stored computerized information.