Marin Independent Journal
Marin County, California
May 6, 2001
By Carolyn R. Saraspi
Parents and teachers concerned about the health affects of radio waves used in wireless Internet connectivity have put the Mill Valley School District's plans to install the technology on hold. About two dozen teachers and parents primarily from Tamalpais Valley Elementary School are afraid electromagnetic radiation from wireless access points could be harmful.
"There are concerns, whether proven scientifically or not," said Rachel Jeter, who has children in second and fifth grades at Tam Valley.
"I would rather not have my kids as guinea pigs for the new technology," she said. School Superintendent Barbara Young, who was among officials who met with parents and teachers last Tuesday, said the district's facilities committee will meet this week to review the issue.
"Unfortunately, this has been planned for quite some time. It has been communicated to schools regarding this," Young said. "(But) certainly, the community and staff concerns are of interest to us."
As part of its ongoing $14.8 million modernization project, the district planned to incorporate wireless network cards and access points into its existing computer system, as well as upgrading wiring and other hardware.
Technology Managers of Sacramento has a contract to do the hardwire upgrades, and was on board to do the wireless integration as well. But its agreement with the district is flexible, said David Harding of Pacific Program Management, the Sacramento-based construction firm overseeing the modernization.
If the district goes ahead with the plans this summer, it will be among the first K-8 districts in the state to incorporate wireless technology.
The wireless access points, such as the AirPort Base Station by Apple Computers, communicate via low-frequency radio waves with workstations containing wireless network cards, which work like wired phone modems.
Access points would be situated primarily in school ceilings and cabinets, Harding said, allowing users to bring laptop computers up to 500 feet outside the classroom and still be connected to a school server.
That means teachers like Jim Thomas of Mill Valley Middle School wouldn't have to spend hours transferring information, such as student grades and notes, from paper to electronic databases.
"If I were observing students working in groups and assessing if they are cooperating and on task, instead of walking around with a clipboard, I can use a Powerbook," said Thomas, who has been using his own wireless products in his seventh-grade classroom.
"For multimedia projects, I could take the Powerbook where the project is stored to another teacher and say, 'What do you think?'" he said.
In addition, students could take a computer away from the din of a busy classroom to a quiet area, work on a writing assignment and print it.
Wireless also allows more students to get on the Web because more computers can be linked to the Internet through one wireless access point than could be connected through a wired switch. Each of Mill Valley's classrooms now have two connections to the Internet. If the modernization goes through as planned, they will increase to four, Harding said.
Because five computers can link to an access point, "you could hook up one AirPort and have five computers work off that, then have five more connect to that," Thomas said. "Theoretically, you could get 25 computers off one (Internet Protocol) address."
That eases up information bottlenecks, resulting in faster-loading Web pages and the ability to access larger data files.
As a result, students could conduct more sophisticated projects, such as collaborations with other students in different parts of the globe, aside from using e-mail.
"Book reports don't have to be the same old written or oral presentation. They can be three dimensional," Thomas said.
With more schools gravitating to wireless, it's crucial that the public know about the possible side effects, said Libby Kelley, head of the Council of Wireless Technology Impacts in Novato. She has been active in the campaign to stop installations of mobile telecommunications antennas in Marin, and was a plaintiff in a lawsuit challenging the Federal Communications Commission's guidelines for safe radio wave use.
"It's important that people understand the frequency, duration of exposure and physical characteristics of children make the feasibility of introducing wireless technology in the classroom an issue," said Kelley, who will speak at Tam Valley's parent group meeting at the school at 7 p.m. Wednesday.
"Scientific studies indicate chronic exposure to these low microwave radiation can affect normal functioning" and can result in learning disabilities, depression and memory loss, she said.
But technology experts and school officials say radiation from wireless access points are lower than those emitted from cellular phones and microwaves, and are too minute to cause any harm. "From what we understand, the wireless computer radiation would not have as much of an impact simply because you're not putting it right next to your head," said Dan Lancaster, director of business and information systems for the Marin County Office of Education.
"The electromagnetic radiation drops off quite rapidly with distance," Lancaster said. "The closer the antenna is to the body, the more of an impact it will have.
"According to federal regulations and research done so far, there's been no strong scientific evidence that radiation from cell phones, much less radiation from laptops, have significant health affects."
Aside from the mobile aspect, Mill Valley was attracted to wireless because of its price. The current project is estimated at $500,000 - a third of the district's original $1.5 million budget to fully upgrade its computer system and keep it wired, Harding said.
A wireless system is much cheaper than the traditional wired network because there's no costly cabling and minimal disruption to the physical environment, said Juli McReynolds, owner of Technology Managers.
"The materials themselves, like the fiber optics, are very costly. When you consider wiring a whole school, there' s just so much cable," McReynolds said. "Then you have to dig into the ground, lay the wiring and do the concrete improvements. There's tons of expense." Because of the cost savings, more California schools are starting to look at wireless solutions for older school buildings.
"Some of our schools are even looking at a situation with hardwire to get Internet connections coming into the building. But a portable lab can be wheeled in with wireless connectivity for folks to get online," said Bonnie Marks of the California Technology Assistance Project, which helps schools weave high-tech into the classroom.
Marks is coordinator for the state project's Region IV, which includes Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, Napa, San Francisco, San Mateo and Solano counties.
The project gave $50,000 to the Marin County Office of Education's to help pay for a cart of 20 iMac laptops, an AirPort and a printer that schools may borrow. Lancaster said the portable laptop lab helps out students whose projects require daily Web research for long periods of time.
"Typically, a history class wouldn't have access to computers every day for two months," he said. Because Mill Valley thought it would save $1 million by bringing in wireless, it has asked Technology Managers to remove the district's antiquated telephone system and install a network that connects schools with each other and to the district offices.
The phone system would also have centralized voice mail, plus the capability to transmit audio over the district's intranet to computers.
Harding said administrators will look over the district's budget during this week's facilities meeting to review the financial implications of scrapping the wireless plan. "The bottom line is that the concerns have been heard, and not to rush ahead without all the facts in hand," he said.