(TNS) -- Cassie Ferrante wants to use the Old Mill High School Wi-Fi on her iPhone to do research and check emails. But she really wants it so she can to listen to music and scroll through social media.
"It's a temptation. If they did give us Wi-Fi, I'd say I use it for the right reasons, but I could be logging on to Twitter or Instagram," Ferrante said.
While school-owned tablets and laptops are connected to the Wi-Fi system, personal devices are not.
The school system ended a ban on in-school use of personal devices such as iPads, iPhones and tablets a couple of months ago. But the existing school Wi-Fi network, officials said, cannot support the personal devices of the 81,000 students and 9,500 school employees, excluding maintenance and facilities workers.
Schools Superintendent George Arlotto said he hopes to expand the Wi-Fi network to allow student access and move schools closer to a Bring Your Own Device program, in which students could use their personal devices for school assignments through the schools' Wi-Fi network.
"It's tantalizing when they give you an iPad and you can see it's connected to Wi-Fi ... and you have to use data," Ferrante said.
She said she uses most of her data at school listening to music, researching and browsing the Internet during her free time.
Her life, Ferrante said, would be easier with Wi-Fi.
"It would establish a better relationship between me and the school," she said.
Greg Barlow, chief information officer for county schools, said the school network is built to support about 59,000 devices such as desktops, Chromebooks and iPads.
If the network were opened to students' and teachers' personal devices, he predicted, it would have to support 180,000 additional devices.
"Let's just say, hypothetically, we did that tomorrow. And we let everyone on. The network would be horribly slow. It would be painfully slow because of all that extra equipment," Barlow said.
He said he is working on a funding request to expand the Wi-Fi network. Barlow estimates the first phase would cost about $15 million. There is no timeline for this potential project.
In the last year, the school system has already expanded the capacity of its network to handle about 16,000 Chromebooks purchased in the last year and a half.
Other Maryland counties are also expanding their networks to support more devices. Some — including Baltimore, Carroll, Prince George's and Howard counties —already allow personal devices to connect to school Wi-Fi.
Baltimore County started assigning devices to students two years ago and aims to give every student a laptop by the 2017-18 school year, school system spokesman Mychael Dickerson said.
Every student in grades one through three has a device, Dickerson said. Some middle-school students also have their own school-assigned devices.
Carroll County has a Bring Your Own Device policy allowing smartphones, tablets and laptops for students in the third grade and up.
Montgomery County is working to provide Chromebooks and tablets to students and is exploring Bring Your Own Device as a possible policy, said school system spokeswoman Gboyinde Onijala.
Baltimore City school officials said they are working toward a getting a device for every student, which is referred to as a one-to-one policy.
The city school system currently has about 72,600 devices for its 85,000 students and its employees.
Prince George's County is upgrading its Wi-Fi capacity to allow a Bring Your Own Device policy, according to school officials.
And Howard County is expanding its Bring Your Own Device program from its high schools to its middle schools, school officials said.
Without a Bring Your Own Device or one-to-one policy, there aren't enough devices for assignments, said Ferrante's brother Richard.
The media center is often filled, he said.
He wants the school to issue codes enabling students who want to work on their laptops at school to hook up to the Wi-Fi system.
Future of technology unclear
While Barlow said there is no timeline for a new technology policy, such as Bring Your Own Device, "Dr. Arlotto and I talked have about it. We believe at some point in time, that will be inevitable.
"It's a lot easier for you to do your work, I'm sure, when you've got your own computer. And the same holds true for the students."
School board President Stacy Korbelak said she backs expanding the Wi-Fi network to support more devices, but said the school board hasn't decided if Wi-Fi should be open to students or if there should be a Bring Your Own Device policy.
"We can't even a consider a policy like that unless the Wi-Fi network can support it," Korbelak said.
And a Bring Your Own Device policy, she said, might not be fair to students who don't have personal devices.
"I wouldn't want to create a situation that's not equitable or (in which) students are embarrassed because they don't own devices at home," Korbelak said.
Also, when students use their own devices, there's less control over inappropriate computer use, she said.
"You're not sure what's on the device or if a student is downloading games or playing games."
Korbelak said the policy change earlier this year was intended to give students and teachers the option of using the devices for class — for example to let students download calculator apps, which cost less than graphing calculators, so they can tackle advanced math problems.
Korbelak said she'd support buying a device for every student, but it may not affordable for the school system.
Barlow said the county is more likely to encourage students to bring their own devices than to pursue a policy of buying a device for every student, as under the Baltimore County plan.
"That's a lot of money; we can't really afford that," Barlow said. "So it becomes a cheaper alternative to let students bring their own."
If the school Wi-Fi system is opened up to students, not everyone would be able to tap into it at once. The expansion would likely happen in phases, Barlow said.
Barlow said he'd recommend high-schoolers be the first to gain access.
"I don't know how many first-graders are going to bring in a laptop ... but a high-schooler is far more likely to bring in a laptop," he said.
Left to their devices
Rachel Woodruff, a parent of three county public school students, said if her children were allowed to tap into school Wi-Fi it would prevent them from overusing data, which phone companies charge penalties for.
But she's also worried about that their laptops would be stolen in school.
"It opens a whole new can of worms," she said.
And the equipment the Woodruff children have at home isn't always compatible with the requirements of the school work.
"This one is running too slow, this won't run this program," Woodruff said.
Woodruff said an online high school math program took a long time to run on the home laptop.
And more and more homework requires a computer, she said.
Melissa Verbeek, a junior at Old Mill High School, said she doesn't need to bring a device to school because she prefers to take notes by hand. And if she needs Internet, she uses the school devices.
"I don't really mind not having the Wi-Fi for my phone. Plus, I think a lot of kids would abuse that and be on their phones in class when they aren't supposed to be," she said.
Cassie Ferrante said people have stolen her friends' smartphones. And she knows shared Wi-Fi means a higher risk of hacking, so she wouldn't connect to any website that contained sensitive information.
"I wouldn't do anything personal that could give myself away. I would not buy anything on Amazon. Just sit and listen to music."
©2015 The Capital (Annapolis, Md.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.