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Can you hear me now? Sturdy new Duluth schools interfere with cell phones

Some staff members and students have already discovered an issue with the Duluth school district's five new or renovated schools: spotty cell phone coverage.

Checking their cell reception
Dave Nelson (right), a junior at East High School, noticed that cell phone reception dropped off in several places in the new school. His friends at left, Kolton Roe and McCoy Ritchie, also juniors, checked their phones. (Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com)

Some staff members and students have already discovered an issue with the Duluth school district's five new or renovated schools: spotty cell phone coverage.

A walk-through with phones at East High School showed only a couple of dead spots, but Piedmont Elementary has no coverage. Some carriers work better than others, said Kerry Leider, property and risk manager for the district.

"The type of construction of modern buildings has some impact on

cell phone transmission," he said. "Where we used to have buildings that didn't have low-emission glass, and walls weren't pre-cast concrete or heavier masonry, the buildings had more transmission capabilities for cell phone signals."

Leider has experienced himself and has heard from some teachers that signal strength varies in the new buildings. The rumor that the district put cell phone blockers in the new schools is not true, he said.

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East junior Justin Smith was at his new school Wednesday for the "jump-start" day designed for students to fill lockers and see the school. He only encountered one dead spot in the building, but he said students might care if they have to walk to a different location to use their phones.

"It could be a problem in the case of an emergency," he said.

Piedmont principal Cher Obst said staff members reach her throughout the day on her cell phone as she moves about the school, because it's easier to carry than a hand-held radio. The school will switch to radios to communicate or rely on the intercom system and landlines.

"It's not a big problem," she said, because teachers aren't on their phones during the day. "It's not an issue as far as safety. We just have to find a different way to do it."

Leider said the radios are the district's primary source of communication for its emergency crisis management. Each classroom also has a landline programmed for 911 calls.

"As far as contacting people with cell phones, there's going to need to be a little different coordination between people depending on where they are and if their cell phones work in the building," Leider said. "This issue that relates to buildings isn't the only limitation to how reliable cell phones are."

East senior Ellen Choquette said AT&T works the best in her new school, and the reception of other providers depends on where you are in the school.

"It's not bad at all," she said. "It's a fair trade-off, because the school is so nice."

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The Duluth school district has a new policy this year regarding cell phones. Elementary and middle school students must store them during the day. High school students can use them before and after class and during lunchtime.

East junior Nate Payne said he had made several calls Wednesday and experienced only slightly spotty service in some parts, but the old East had its own dead spots.

"It's not that big of a deal," he said. "If you really need to be using your cell phone in school you can walk down the stairs, or whatever. I'd much rather have bad cell phone service and a really nice school."

Getting acquainted at East High School
The commons at East High School was alive with activity Wednesday afternoon as students came by to get acquainted with the new building and classrooms before Friday, the first day of school. (Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com)

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