Removal of Gwinnett school Wi-Fi network draws student complaints

A petition drew 10,000 signatures the first three days of school

Archer High School senior Allariah Chapman heard some disturbing news from friends the first day of school.

The Wi-Fi that she and other Gwinnett County students were accustomed to using with their phones and other devices was gone.

“Part of me thought, ‘there is no way’” they would do this, Chapman said. “But they weren’t joking.”

Student response to the change has been swift. An online petition to “Bring Back Wi-Fi Access” garnered 10,000 signatures in about three days.

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Among the top concerns described in comments on the petition was the ability for students and parents to reach each other for reasons from arranging a ride because of a canceled afterschool activity to possible emergencies.

Numerous comments referenced the May mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas.

“If you’re not going to have gun safety in this country, then you need to have it so your students can reach their parents if something happens because it is not safe,” Chapman said of Wi-Fi access.

Even parents have noted the trouble they have getting a cellphone signal at their kids’ schools.

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For years, Gwinnett has had a “bring your own device” policy and a Wi-Fi network for those devices. The district planned to phase out that network by August 2023, but nearly all schools asked for the Wi-Fi to be disabled this school year, district officials told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Instead of students bringing their own devices for class, all students third grade and up were provided Chromebooks, most of which were purchased to ensure students could attend their online classes in pandemic disrupted school years. Gwinnett officials say it also allows them to provide internet access through the Chromebooks in a more regulated way.

Bring your own device “has often caused distractions as students use their devices to visit non-instructional websites and/or use social media during class,” the district stated. In emergencies, the district said students can ask a teacher to use a phone and parents can call the school. Gwinnett officials also noted that students can still bring their phones and use their own cellular and data network “at appropriate times.”

“GCPS believes the decision to disable the (bring your own device) Wi-Fi network while still allowing student devices on campus is a reasonable middle ground,” the district stated.

Chapman said that’s not an option for many. Her mom sent her numerous texts on her first day, just to check in. Her phone didn’t buzz with the messages until she was on the bus away from school.

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Deyon Triplett, an Archer parent, said he knows not to rely on cellphone signal in his kids’ schools.

“When I go to the schools, I never have access,” he said. He’s learned he needs to take a screenshot of his tickets for football games at Archer because he can’t load emails on his phone.

His daughter Amerie Triplett started the petition and said having a connection to the outside world is essential. A student having a panic attack or similar issue needs to reach a parent or guardian as quickly as possible.

“Many parents, including my own, want to be able to get in contact with their children easily without them having to go all the way to the front office for a single phone call,” she said.

The district said it notified students and families at the end of the previous school year and through the updated student handbook. However, many were not aware of the change until hearing it from a teacher, leading to the sharp response as classes started.

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Gwinnett is not the only metro Atlanta district to implement a new device policy this year.

Fulton County implemented rules for cellphones this school year that disallow students using them during class time without a teacher’s permission. Elementary students will not be allowed to have their devices during any part of the school day. The new rules came in response to phones being used in class and other behavioral problems that have escalated recently.