Earlier this year, the Montclair school district’s technology department announced it was shifting its focus to upgrading the district’s network infrastructure, after a year spent creating and solidifying its one-to-one Chromebook initiative.

The department has outlined three main goals – building a secure network, creating a well-structured and easily understood disaster recovery plan, and providing students with the opportunity to connect with one another and the world through technology – Christopher Graber, the district’s technology director, said at a Dec. 12 Montclair Board of Education meeting.

“In the past, whenever our network went out, we would lose complete connectivity,” Graber said. “The technicians would have to go to the school, try to troubleshoot, figure out what the problem was. When we found out it was a battery, then we would have to replace the battery, taking away valuable instructional time.”

But with the purchase of new 50 network card batteries, that will change, Graber said. 

With the new batteries, the technology department will be able to see when and where a battery goes out, Graber said. By next week, 48 batteries will be installed across all schools, he said. Two batteries will be kept as spares. 

“We're starting to really see the fruits of our labor with the school connectivity,” Graber said at the Dec. 12 meeting.

The batteries will also ensure that the district remains connected to its network for at least 48 hours in the case of a power outage, Graber said. 

The district has also increased its number of Wi-Fi access points, ensuring strong signals through the district, Graber said. 

The next generation firewall, Cisco Firepower, has been installed, necessary to support the increase in devices over the past few years, Graber said.

“In the past when the pandemic hit, and we were forced to put this influx of devices on the network, it was taxing the network heavily,” Graber said.

The previous firewall, the network security system monitoring and controlling network traffic, was only capable of one gigabyte internet, Graber said. The new firewall can handle three gigabytes. 

“We do speed tests every day,” Graber said. “We're much faster than where we were. And that gives us the ability to do great things here – more devices on the network, our labs, wireless stuff.”

But the upgrade will also be important moving forward, Graber said. With tech equipment included in the referendum work, the load on the district’s network will only continue to increase, he said.  

“This is going to support a lot of that work that we're going to be doing in the next couple of years,” Graber said.

The district has also implemented security enhancements to its network, and is rolling out multifactor authentication, Graber said. The authentication began with district administrators and school leaders and will expand to include school board members. Then conversations will begin about how best to introduce it to the staff, he said. 

And the enhanced security is already working, Graber said – the district has seen a 15% decrease in phishing attempts and compromised accounts.

In addressing its second goal of creating a disaster recovery plan, the district has to be ready for any sort of issue, Graber said. While that could be a cyber attack, it could also be a natural disaster, flooding or a fire, he said. 

“We really didn't have a playbook in place,” Graber said. “That's something that we're going to be developing, and we're going to have finalized by the end of this year.” 

The district will be working with cybersecurity experts to audit the district’s network to find any existing vulnerabilities, Graber said. 

“We're going to work hand-in-hand with these folks, get their feedback, get their advice, and then work with senior leadership as a team and decide what best works for us.

In the meantime, the network gets backed up to the cloud each night, via a secure third party, Graber said. 

Regarding its third goal, ensuring all students have access to technology, the district continues to distribute Chromebooks and Wi-Fi service to families who express a need, Graber said. Through the Federal Communications Commission’s Emergency Connectivity Fund, the district was awarded 3,500 devices, Graber said. So far, 3,080 devices have been distributed to students and staff members for use at school and at home.

Moving forward, the eight-person technology department will work to install additional Wi-Fi access points across the district, use the remaining resources from the Emergency Connectivity Fund and continue work on cyber security, among other projects, Graber said.