Hot spot checkout programs help students connect

By LEANN BURKE
lburke@dcherald.com

When local schools suddenly closed last spring due to COVID-19, lack of reliable internet in rural areas became clear.

While some students accessed their assignments and lessons without a hitch, others struggled, leading educators to create hybrid offerings of e-learning for students with internet and take-home packets for students without. Going into the 2020-21 school year, educators planned for similar struggles when students quarantine due to COVID-19 exposure or in the event of another emergency closure. Part of the plan for two local school districts — North Spencer and Southeast Dubois — included grant money from the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief, or GEER, fund.

The GEER fund was designed to improve connectivity and increase devices available to students and teachers. For both North Spencer and Southeast Dubois, the funding helped the districts purchase mobile hot spots with one-year data plans that families can check out to help with connectivity issues.

Southeast Dubois Superintendent Jamie Pund estimated that about 20% of families in her school district struggle with reliable internet. The issue has two levels, Pund said. Some families can’t access the internet at all from their homes; others have access, but the plans have limited data or the connectivity is spotty. Neither situation is ideal for e-learning, Pund said.

“When you’re trying to deliver your curriculum and instruction virtually and families don’t have reliable Wi-Fi, it presents a challenge,” she said.

Last spring, the corporation solved the issue by providing take-home packets for students who needed them. That worked in the short term, Pund said, but it’s not a long-term solution. With the packets, students missed out on the video lessons from their teachers, and that isn’t a situation Pund and her staff wanted to carry into the new school year.

“That’s truly where the learning comes in — through that interaction with the teacher,” Pund said.

Southeast Dubois received $55,000 from GEER and will use the funds to purchase 100 hot spots with one-year data plans. The funds will also cover 10 document cameras and the accompanying Chromebooks. Teachers use the document cameras to record and livestream their writing on documents such as worksheets so that students can follow the lesson at home.

“This bridges a huge gap we had between our school and our families,” Pund said.

North Spencer Technology Director Tama Rickelman is using the $68,000 the corporation received from GEER as well as funds from an anonymous donor to purchase 66 hot spots with one-year unlimited data plans. The purchase will beef up a hot spot checkout program already established at Heritage Hills High School two years ago through a similar grant and make the program available corporationwide.

At North Spencer, the majority of families do have access to the internet, Rickelman said, but about 30% do not, based on a survey she sent to parents over the summer. The challenges for North Spencer families without reliable internet are similar to those of Southeast Dubois families in the same situation — they either can’t access the internet at all, or the access they have doesn’t support e-learning.

“Some use their cellphones or hot spots, but that’s not always reliable,” Rickelman said. “They just don’t get the reliability they need.”

Rickelman is hoping the hot spots can fill the gap. She’s confident the program will help, but she also knows it’s not a perfect solution. The hot spots have data connection through Sprint’s Mobile Beacon, but the service isn’t available throughout the area North Spencer served. Rickelman researched other major carriers such as Verizon and AT&T and ran into a similar problem. She couldn’t find one carrier that covered the entire corporation.

“It really depends on where you live,” she explained. “They cover one portion of our county, but not another, and unfortunately I couldn’t get [hot spots] through all the carriers.”

It’s early in the school year, but the hot spots are already getting some use, both for everyday homework use and for e-learning due to COVID-19 quarantine. As long as only a handful of students need the hot spots at a time, the 66 will be able to cover the need. But, if school closes again, there may not be enough hot spots for every family that needs one.

“I think right now we’re doing OK,” she said. “We haven’t seen a great need. I hope it stays that way.”




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