Schools’ iffy phone system is back online

It looks like for now the phones are working again at the Rappahannock County Public Schools. Fingers crossed that there will be no more dead lines, no more after-hours greetings heard by callers in the middle of the day and no further offers of a cruise to the Bahamas (more about that later).

Periodic outages since June of the school division’s Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP) phone system, which offers voice service through the Web-based data network, had some parents, teachers and administrators frustrated and looking for work-arounds.

Five years ago, then-superintendent Dr. Aldridge Boone converted the existing analog landline telephone system to VOIP, which meant that every classroom could have a phone.  

“Back then, classrooms only had intercom systems,” said Robin Bolt, director of technology and assessment for the school system. “Teachers didn’t have the capability, if necessary, to dial 911. So going from analog phones to internet phones was really a safety issue for the teachers.”

Current superintendent Dr. Donna Matthews said that for the most part, the VOIP system has worked as it should and praised Boone for having the vision to install VOIP.

As for the current series of outages, “Only one outage was planned and it was for four days in June when school was out,” said Matthews. “We re-did the entire network for our computers. We upgraded everything we had control of. And all phones and internet services were up and running properly prior to school opening.”

And then came the perfect storm, as Matthews described it, when both Comcast and Fusion, the schools’ phone provider, had problems. “In September, the phones were out for several days,” she said. “We didn’t know if the issue was with us or Comcast. We determined the problem was not on our end, so we called Comcast. It took them a while to get here. They don’t just drop everything and run to us.”

Turns out the Comcast modem had failed, so Comcast installed a new one. “The server and each phone required reprogramming,” said Bolt.

Then in November, RCPS was unable to receive incoming calls, but they could still call out. “We didn’t even know there was an issue until someone let us know,” said Matthews.

“This time the problem was with Fusion,” said Matthews. “Something in their lines was crossed.”  When parents called the schools, they would get a recorded message offering them a free trip to the Bahamas.

Fusion fixed the problem in a couple of hours, said Matthews, but the next day the phones went down again.

“On Nov. 17, Fusion experienced a disruption to their network server located in New York,” said Bolt, “resulting in an East Coast disruption.”

Matthews stressed that “at no time were our kids in danger. As a back-up we still maintain a few analog lines which we normally use for the fax machines. When the internet phones go out, we disconnect the fax machines and plug in the analog phones.” Bolt posts those numbers on the schools’ website from her cell phone.

In addition, said Matthews, the schools can still contact the sheriff and the schools’ resource officer, if needed, and teachers and administrators can still call out on their cell phones. When outages last more than a few hours, the schools send notes home with the kids informing parents of the problem and the working analog phone numbers.

So for now, the phones are working. “We didn’t win any trips,” said Matthews, but now Bolt is on a first-name basis with the Fusion rep and Matthews has a vice president of Comcast on her speed dial. “If anything happens, we have a number now and we call and we have a lot of heavy discussions until they get somebody out here.”

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