Local school districts stepping up to bridge the digital divide many students face

As students and families have started a new school year, they have been facing challenges they never expected to have to overcome.

With COVID-19 a current part of daily life, schools have had to adjust to allow for social distancing and face coverings in their buildings. And, they’ve also had to figure out how to teach students who are doing school virtually – either because that is the option their family chose, because the whole school is opting for virtual learning, or during times of quarantine to reduce the spread of the coronavirus.

The challenges are many, but local school districts are facing them head-on.

Tecumseh Local School District is the only district in Clark County that opted for all students to learn virtually for at least the first nine weeks.

“Our rational is the safety and health of our students and staff with coronavirus, and right alongside that are being able to follow the guidelines we have to follow for the coronavirus,” Tecumseh Local Schools Superintendent Paula Crew says, adding that the decision to go to virtual learning was based on the uptick of cases in Clark County in late July and the challenges that would have come with contact tracing and having enough staff to teach both in-person and remotely while students would inevitably be out of school quarantined because of contact with someone who tested COVID positive.

So when classes started last week, all 3,100 Tecumseh students kicked off the new school year at home.

The district was about to provide about 1,000 Chromebooks to families in need of technology to make virtual learning possible. But a delay in a shipment of another 975 Chromebooks the district ordered in early June has put a kink in plans to provide that technology for all the students who need it.

“We utilized the first round of the CARES Act money,” Crew says. “We decided on July 24 to go to completely remote learning for Tecumseh for the first nine weeks. Then about a week later, we received a call from the manufacturer that it will be about the beginning of October before we will receive those, because we are not the only district that utilized that CARES money to purchase devices. So then we had to really think outside to box, because ideally when we ordered those Chromebooks, that would give us a 1-to-1 student to device ratio when we receive those Chromebooks.”

In the meantime, the district created a plan to give one, two, or three Chromebooks to each family depending on the number of children in their household.

Tecumseh teachers, not a third-party program, are providing all virtual lessons. The district spent the summer months providing professional development in virtual teaching techniques so students could get as much of a traditional-feeling education as possible while they’re virtually learning.

Connectivity is another barrier some families in the Tecumseh district face. Whether because of affordability or lack of access in rural Southwest Clark County, some families don’t have reliable WiFi.

All the parking lots in all of Tecumseh’s buildings now are WiFi enabled for student use. Families that don’t have another option would be able to access class information from their vehicles on any of the schools’ campuses.

“It’s not ideal at all, but it’s something,” Crew says. “And in addition to that we have 25 hotspots we’ve ordered that are anticipated early next week. That’s now we’re trying to alleviate the problem of not having devices or connectivity.”

Students in seventh through 12th grades have live lessons they sign in for throughout the school day and younger students have a couple live sessions each day.

However, all sessions are recorded and saved into Google Classroom.

“There are so many reasons a student might not be able to attend a live session. It could be lack of devices at home. It could be connectivity with the internet, it could be they’re at a babysitter, a daycare, with a grandma who may or may not have knowledge of the technology. 

“The recording of those livefeeds is huge, because if they’re recorded students can watch them anytime,” Crew says.

Though technology access is a challenge, Crew says the biggest issue Tecumseh faces is trying to help working families navigate the addition of schooling to their daily schedules.

She says the district has flexibility of when assignments are due and is creating programs to make sure students learning at home feel engaged and supported.

The district is building a support team of staff members – including bus drivers, guidance counselors, librarians and others – who will be checking in weekly with students of interested families to ensure their needs are being met, both educationally and in other areas, such as food needs and mental health.

“This initiative is just to let the students know … that someone is checking in,” Crew says. “We definitely recognize the importance of that social-emotional, mental health because if we’re not taking care of that, they won’t be able to learn.”

Springfield City Schools also have been working hard to breakdown the technology and connectivity barriers families in the city also are facing.

Families in the district were able to choose between a 100 percent virtual option or an in-person option for this school year.

“We had about 2,600 students pick the complete virtual option, which left about 5,100-5200 students returning,” Springfield City Schools Superintendent Dr. Robert Hill says. “Fortunately, with that high number of students choosing the virtual option, we were able to staff that with our own teachers and that’s being administered with Google Classroom.”

The district is set when it comes to providing devices to students who need access either because they are learning virtually or have to work remotely from home because of a coronavirus exposure quarantine.

“We were fortunate for the support of the community and the state in terms of funding. We are able to provide every student in the district in grades K through 12 with either a laptop computer or an iPad,” Hill says. “We’ve been doing that for several years now.”

The district’s major challenge is with WiFi accessibility. Though almost 99 percent of the city is able to acquire reliable connections, a school survey relieved that about half the families in the district don’t have reliable internet.

To address the need, Hill says the school ordered about 4,500 hotspots for families to use for at-home access. However, like Tecumseh’s delayed laptops, the hotspots have proven to be difficult items to get quickly. While the hotspots were supposed to arrive in mid-August, they’ve since been delayed until mid-September.

“It’s my hope that they come sooner than that, but it’s also my hope we can stay in school longer than that,” Hill says. “It is our belief that with that 4,500, we can at least provide internet access – one per family that may not have it.

“With not knowing what this year is going to bring or if we’ll have to shut down, we’ll at least be able to provide each kid with a laptop and each family with internet access.”

More than access to technology, Hill says poverty faced by families in the district would be a much bigger challenge if schools were to need to shut down at some point this year.

The district is working on possible options it for families that might need a place for students to be if schools have to close but families still have to work.

“All of these will be dependent on community health conditions and if it would be safe to bring students it,” Hill says. “We would do everything in our power to utilize whatever staff we can to help bridge that divide and provide students with the help that’s necessary.”

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Read more articles by Natalie Driscoll.