When COVID-19 forced schools to close and go completely online, school businesses in and around Monroe County scrambled to help students without stable internet at home not to be left behind.
But having internet access at home was a problem for many families before the pandemic, and it will remain a problem after the pandemic subsides. While schools will likely never close due to COVID-19 again, there will always be e-learning days due to bad weather or emergencies, and students will always need the internet to complete their homework.
“It seems as if when we started moving to more electronic means to deliver the curriculum, it kind of coincided with the pandemic,” said Adam Terwilliger, Director of Information Technology at MCCSC. “We want to prepare students to be digital citizens…but I think the pandemic has increased our need.”
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Additionally, Indiana’s bill to Governor Eric Holcomb could limit the number of e-learning days that are not synchronous by at least 50%, or that are led by teachers in real time. This can be difficult for homes that do not have a stable enough internet to run programs like Zoom or Google Meet. Some schools may reduce e-learning as a result.
Terwilliger said it is unfair to expect students to do online work without providing them with the equipment to do so. But sometimes, that’s hard to do.
Hotspots ‘Meet the Need’ of MCCSC Students
When the pandemic sent students home in 2020, Monroe County Community School Corp and other local school organizations dealt by extending WiFi to school parking lots and to school buses parked at various locations.
However, the most effective solution was to provide the students with their own WiFi hotspots to take home.
Terwilliger said that in August 2020, MCCSC purchased 200 WiFi hotspots to give to students in need. In 2021, it ordered another 200 to keep up with the increasing demand. The hotspots were purchased with Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security funding and an in-kind donation from Source for Learning, a Virginia-based nonprofit.
Terwilliger said no student has ever been refused a hotspot.
“It’s a surprisingly pleasing thing for us,” he said. “It really fulfills a need.”
Occasionally families will call the school company to say they are still struggling with spotty service, Terwilliger said. But that’s not something the school can help with.
“The only issues we have with (hotspots) will be the same problems that families are having with regard to their access to more densely populated areas,” he said. “So, as if we’re on our phones and out in the 3G zone, it’s hard to get to faster internet than if you’re in the LTE zone.”
Unreliable internet in certain coverage areas is a separate but prevalent issue. But not being able to pay for the internet in the first place is where hotspots help. About 15% of households in Monroe County did not have a broadband Internet subscription from 2015 through 2019, according to US Census Bureau data.
In cases of intermittent service, students can go to places like the Monroe County Public Library to use the free Wi-Fi. Josh Wolf, assistant director of public services, said MCPL expanded its WiFi into its parking lot several years ago and has more than a dozen computers available in the children’s and teens departments inside.
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“Usually, when I arrive in the morning any day, there are two cars with people in them with laptops or phones, so I know they are using[WiFi],” Wolf said. “When I leave at night, there are usually two cars where people are driving around and using the WiFi signal.”
Wolf said the library also has about 60 portable Wi-Fi hotspots that are always in use, often by families with children.
Terwilliger said the need for hotspots for MCCSC students is now less urgent because the pandemic is unlikely to close schools again, but the hotspots won’t go away.
“Pandora’s box has been opened,” he said. “This is not something we wish we would never have.”
The Richland-Bean Blossom Community School Corp. started. Also in providing WiFi hotspots for students at the beginning of the pandemic. R-BB communications coordinator Brittany Tucker said the district plans to retain at least some of the hotspots on a long-term basis for students who need them most.
Green County schools unsure about the future of WiFi hotspots
In neighboring areas such as Green County, the need to provide students with the Internet is increasing.
In Greene County, nearly 30% of households did not have an Internet broadband subscription from 2015 through 2019, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.
Linton-Stockton and Eastern Greene schools received WiFi hotspots in 2020 through grants from the Governor’s Education Emergency Relief Fund. Lynton Stockton manager Cathy Goad said she uses the hotspot herself — otherwise she wouldn’t be able to work at home.
However, both companies’ hotspots were purchased under contracts that expire this summer. Currently, none of the counties are sure about contract renewals.
“I cannot guarantee that we will be able to afford to extend this,” said Eastern Greene Trent Provo supervisor.
Indiana bill could restrict e-learning
A House bill directed at Governor Eric Holcomb could limit schools to three e-learning days that are not at least 50% synchronized. The bill, HB 1093, was adopted by the Indiana House and Senate last week.
Asynchronous instruction includes activities such as pre-recorded lectures and online discussion boards. Simultaneous instruction may include a live online class.
If the bill becomes law, it will enter into force in July. Schools can request that this new rule be waived under “exceptional circumstances,” the bill said.
Jawad said that in the days of e-learning, students at Linton-Stockton schools who don’t have access to the Internet have to complete work after they go back to school.
“They will have to do the work after that, along with the learning they were doing in class,” she said. “It was just a disservice to these kids.”
Provo said Eastern Greene schools require the same. Sometimes, if the e-learning day is planned well in advance, schools can provide paper packages. But in situations like sudden bad weather or emergencies, that is not possible.
Jawad said the House bill could affect how a school institution determines calendars in the future, meaning that e-learning days may be replaced by snow days.
“Whether the kids have access or not, he’s definitely going to play in that too,” Jawad said. “Because in the last couple of years especially, we don’t want our kids to miss out on on-campus learning more than they have to.”
Provo said Eastern Greene schools are trying to implement as few e-learning days as possible for the same reason.
“There’s really no substitute for being in the classroom,” he said.
Contact Herald Times reporter Kristen Stephenson at firstname.lastname@example.org.