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New limits on Wi-Fi in Pinellas schools have students searching for ways around the system

Northeast High fresh?men Colton Grainger, 14, left, and Matthew Miller, 14, use their phones before class. Pinellas students will now rely on data for the Web.
Northeast High fresh?men Colton Grainger, 14, left, and Matthew Miller, 14, use their phones before class. Pinellas students will now rely on data for the Web.
Published Sep. 8, 2015

Pinellas County parents might want to brace for their next cellphone bill.

Their children returned to public school campuses last month to find that they will have to rely on their family data plans to scroll through Instagram on their smartphones. Officials have locked students out of the school system's Wi-Fi — and administrators are withholding the passwords.

In an effort to improve wireless service for educational purposes, the district has replaced one of the wireless networks shared by staff and students with two new networks: one exclusively for staff and their personally owned wireless devices and another for district-owned wireless devices, such as iPads and laptops. A remaining password-protected guest network from last year will be used by guests, vendors and — at the discretion of each school's administration — students.

Students lucky enough to be given the password to the guest network won't have much time to cherish it before it is changed on a monthly or as-needed basis.

Within hours after the first bell rang in a new school year, students took to Twitter to lament the loss of Wi-Fi and seek out the coveted password.

"Does anyone know how to get on the new school wifi???" asked @dylanlewis1999 from St. Petersburg.

"Shoutout to Pinellas County Schools for not allowing students to have access to the wifi," came the sarcastic tweet by @kimburlydavid, who added 15 smiling emojis.

"My wifi hasn't worked at home since last week and there's no wifi at school.... RIP data plan," tweeted @liniteriyaki from Seminole.

By the second day of school, Madison Heideman, a sophomore at Osceola Fundamental High, realized the school Wi-Fi didn't connect automatically on her iPhone 6.

"I tried looking for the Wi-Fi server that we used, and it wasn't on there and I was really confused," Heideman, 15, said in interview. Her TV production teacher delivered the bad news.

Like many students, East Lake High junior Shelby Shockey set out to get around the district's barrier and found a teacher who was willing to give her the username and password. She then tweeted the information out, ending her message with "rt to save a life." Students from across the county responded with hundreds of retweets and favorites.

Overhauling the district's network will help unclog an overburdened system that slowed and interrupted Internet connections last year, especially in high schools where more students have smartphones, said Tom Lechner, the district's assistant superintendent for technology and information systems.

The district has watched its bandwidth use increase over the past 13 months, forcing the purchase of 3 more gigabits to accommodate wireless activity, he said. "It's the number of devices, whether it's district-owned or student-owned or staff-owned," that overburden the network.

Pinellas spends about $1 million a year on bandwidth, Lechner said.

At Northeast High in St. Petersburg, principal Kevin Hendrick said no student will receive a password to the guest network. He said any student who pleads for Wi-Fi to access school-related content will be handed a school-issued device, where many sites are filtered and blocked and Internet history is monitored.

"A lot of things could slow down the network — streaming music, watching videos," Hendrick said, adding: "There are things students could potentially do on there that we wouldn't be able to monitor."

And if students still want to surf the Web, "it's on their own data plan."

He said some teachers complained about slow Internet speeds last year.

"If a teacher had a laptop cart in a room, and they're trying to access either a curriculum program or even if students were trying to access something online, things could be very slow," he said. Now, he says, Wi-Fi isn't a problem at all.

The same rules apply at Gibbs High, where principal Reuben Hepburn bans cellphone use throughout the day. Students there also will be given a school-issued device in lieu of a password.

"All of our school's safety and our reputation — we're trying to protect that, while at the same time protecting the integrity of our learning environment," he said.

Shockey at East Lake High said the connection was faster last year. But some Wi-Fi is better than no Wi-Fi.

"Someone came up to me in school today, and they were like, 'How'd you get the Wi-Fi?' And I was like, 'I got connections,' " she said.

And what happens when the district changes the password in a month?

"I'll figure it out again."

Colleen Wright can be reached at cwright@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8643. Follow @Colleen_Wright.