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Public access to school computers raises questions


Opening school computer labs for community access raises some concerns.
Opening school computer labs for community access raises some concerns.


A move that will let schools use federal e-Rate funds to help their stakeholders get online by opening up their computer labs to the community after school hours has left some educators wondering how schools might let adults view age-appropriate web sites while still protecting children from inappropriate content.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on Feb. 18 approved a motion allowing school systems to let members of their community use e-Rate funded infrastructure after school hours (see “Education goals in National Broadband Plan revealed“). The FCC’s order waives the rule requiring schools to use e-Rate funded equipment and services only for “educational purposes,” and it’s part of the agency’s larger strategy to deliver broadband access to more Americans.

How to implement the new ruling was left to each school’s discretion, and schools will have to do so without the benefit of additional e-Rate funds, the FCC said.

Schools don’t have to take advantage of the rule change, an FCC spokeswoman said–but those that do must continue to adhere to the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA), which requires e-Rate recipients to use “technology protection measures” to keep minors from accessing inappropriate content.

“This action will leverage Universal Service funding to serve a larger population at no increased cost to the e-Rate program,” the agency said in a statement. “If a school chooses to allow community access, the general public will be able to use the internet access already present in schools for purposes such as job searches and applications, digital literacy programs, and online access to governmental services and resources. Increasing community access to the internet is particularly critical in communities where residential adoption of broadband internet access has historically lagged, including many rural, minority, and tribal communities.”

But the ruling has raised several questions for school leaders.

“My biggest question is, how are we going to pay someone to supervise these computer labs after hours?” wrote Linda Hinton, the technology director for Colorado’s Monte Vista School District, in an eMail message to eSchool News. “We are letting district staff go because of state cuts in funding. We don’t have any funds for this. I guess if the salary was e-Rate discountable, we could handle it.”

As for balancing the needs of adults and children, Hinton said she would leave her district’s internet filter operative during after-hours use of computer labs.

“Any sites that adults need for job searches and educational purposes shouldn’t be affected by the filter,” she wrote. “I am not sure about the feasibility of providing a [specific] network access account to someone who is only going to use it infrequently.”

Nancy Willard, executive director of the Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use, said the FCC’s expansion of the e-Rate program is encouraging, although a few important details must be resolved.

CIPA allows for the disabling of a filtering program if it’s blocking access to a legitimate web site, and most public libraries will disable the filter if an adult requests this, Willard said.

One challenge stemming from the FCC’s ruling, Willard said, is the way computers are arranged in school libraries or computer labs as compared to how they are arranged in public libraries. Public libraries often separate computers intended for use by children from general adult computers, and children must be supervised and not left to wander into an area where an adult might be using a filter-disabled computer.

“Further, in public libraries, there is a strong focus on ensuring patron privacy [through the] placement of computers and privacy screens,” she said. “This approach serves many purposes, such as [when] an adult might be searching for sensitive medical information. But in schools, the placement of the computers is designed to ensure the most effective supervision; all screens are to be easily visible.”

School leaders also must consider how they would provide the additional staffing, security, and technical support that would be needed to open their facilities for public use after school hours, Willard said.

“I am not saying these issues cannot be handled–but they will need to be discussed and resolved,” she said.

Willard said rural communities in particular stand to benefit from the ruling, and she proposed that school stakeholders consider community technology centers as another step toward greater broadband access.

“Why should the adults in these communities only have access after school hours or during school holidays?” she asked. “Would it not be possible to establish community technology centers that are open [during] all daytime and evening hours, that use the same bandwidth as the schools but are a separate program with separate rules, funding, et cetera?”


FCC’s National Broadband Plan


Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use

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