October 12, 2020 | internet | No Comments
JACKSON, MI – With around 35% of students unable to afford or have access to internet service, Jackson Public Schools Superintendent Jeff Beal knew he had to do something to help with remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic.
So, Wi-Fi service is on its way to those students via the district’s school bus fleet, allowing families free internet access to connect their devices to on days they aren’t participating in face-to-face school.
JPS spent $65,000 to outfit its full fleet of 52 buses with Wi-Fi hot spots. It’s deploying 15 of them into Jackson neighborhoods with high concentrations of families that can’t afford internet access.
Beal calls this initial deployment a “proof of concept,” with the idea that JPS might need to use all of its buses if moving entirely to remote learning is required because an entire building is put into quarantine during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We’re doing it today to build it out to make certain that we’re ready for tomorrow,” Beal said. “A lot of this is trying to predict what might happen or what might be needed. We want to make certain that we have the ability to make sure all kids have access to be able to continue their education.”
JPS will begin sending buses out to neighborhoods surrounding downtown, with a couple east of downtown and one near the airport, the week of Oct. 12.
The district currently offers a hybrid learning format with two different student groups attending school in-person during different days of the week to avoid exposure to each other.
While the district has made a point to send students home after two days of face-to-face learning, with lessons uploaded to their devices, live online interaction is a key component students without internet access are missing out on during the rest of the academic week, Beal said.
“The difference is when they go home, they don’t have as much access to the teacher on (off days),” Beal said. “This provides them with more access if they have a question or they’re trying to turn something in. It really allows us to do a little bit more regarding that communication piece when they’re not with us.”
Buses will provide Wi-Fi at a range of 150 to 300 feet, depending on the level of obstruction to homes or apartments in the area, Beal said. They will park in the neighborhood locations from 9:30 a.m. to 12:45 p.m. daily.
Locations for the buses were determined through a student-based survey in which teachers spoke directly with students in their classes about what type of internet connectivity they had at home. From that survey, JPS created a list and plotted out a site map of where it could park the buses around the community.
While outfitting buses with Wi-Fi hot spots is not a new idea in Michigan, since the COVID-19 pandemic made all learning virtual last spring, deploying the buses into primarily urban areas is a mostly untested concept.
“I think it’s an innovative model,” said Eric Frederick, executive director of Connect Michigan, a nonprofit that works with the Michigan Public Service Commission to track broadband access in the state.
“It’s definitely a stopgap measure. We don’t want that to be a permanent method for home connectivity for those students, but it’s definitely a short-term stopgap measure to get the connectivity out there fast to the students who need it right now for virtual learning.”
According to a statewide survey conducted in mid-April by the Michigan Association of Intermediate School Administrators, 29.3% of Michigan students statewide did not have access to a device at home to use for schoolwork. An estimated 27.1% of students did not have access to internet that could support some form of virtual learning.
A March 2 report from Michigan State University’s Quello Center found students who don’t have internet access at home, or depend on a cell phone for access, on average have lower GPAs and SAT scores and are less likely to express interest in completing a college degree or going into STEM fields.
Nationally, about a third of households with school-aged children earning less than $30,000 annually lack high-speed internet access, and the disparities are more pronounced among minorities and rural residents, according to the Pew Research Center.
A lack of internet availability in rural areas, no access to technology devices and a lack of income are all barriers that prevent families from being able to participate fully in remote learning, with the financial barrier being the hardest to overcome, Frederick said.
“Just because a household has a service available to them and they might have a device from the school, doesn’t mean that an internet connection is affordable to them,” Frederick said. “I think that’s one of the biggest challenges we have in the state is making sure the service that is available and out there for everyone is affordable.”
West Ottawa Public Schools was one of the first districts in the state to equip some of its buses with Wi-Fi when schools across Michigan closed and went to remote learning in March. District leaders observed the need while buses were delivering food to families at 48 locations throughout the district.
As a 1:1 technology district for the past six years, the district, located in Holland, Michigan, first made sure all its students had access to Chromebooks for remote learning, West Ottawa Assistant Superintendent for Instructional Services Todd Tulgestke said.
Trips to deliver food in densely populated neighborhoods revealed, however, that many families couldn’t afford internet service, Tulgestke said, leading the district to purchase Wi-Fi hot spots for 15 of its buses.
“We knew we had to get creative and we wanted to provide access to our kids,” he said. “We were very strategic about where we put them based on where we knew our students likely didn’t have access to high quality Wi-Fi within their household.”
Families regularly took advantage of the internet access through the hot spots by RCN Technologies, which provided a range of about 500 feet of access. That meant families sometimes needed to leave their apartments if they lived in a densely populated complex, but the program’s effectiveness was apparent, Tulgestke said.
The district did not deploy the buses to neighborhoods this fall because it’s offering five days of in-person instruction this fall, creating greater demand for its buses to transport students, rather than delivering Wi-Fi, Tulgestke said, adding it’s still valuable to have the technology available if it does need to move back to Phase 3 with remote learning or when it begins offering more robust summer school programming in a hybrid format.
JPS is still considering how it might be able to use the buses in other formats, Beal said, including the possibility of deploying them on anticipated snow days to hold virtual learning.
“We’re trying to create as equitable of access for everybody as we can,” he said. “We know that as we get deeper into the school year, it is vitally important that all of our students get a quality education.”
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