The Bozeman school district is working to provide internet access and devices to students needing them, as periodic switches to remote learning are expected to continue.
Since schools first moved to remote learning in early spring, the district knew ensuring students had access to internet and technology would be a crucial challenge in avoiding achievement gaps, according to district administrators.
Andrew Loftus, director of fine arts and student programs with the district, said throughout the pandemic the district recognized it would need to be able to “nimbly transition” between in-person, blended and 100% online learning at the individual, classroom, building or district level.
Earlier this week, two schools announced temporary transitions to 100% remote learning. Irving Elementary moved classes to online learning for Tuesday, and Chief Joseph Middle School’s eighth grades moved to online learning for Thursday and Friday.
Canvas, the district’s online learning management system, is the “critical bridge for instruction and communication through transitions,” he said. “This of course means that consistent internet access is crucial in any phase or model.”
Casey Bertram, district’s deputy superintendent of curriculum and technology, said the iPads for kindergarten to second grade students have arrived and the district is finishing handing those out. The district started off the year by prioritizing devices for those that needed them most due to nationwide shortages of devices.
As the schools continue to transition to five days of in-person learning, teachers will prioritize devices as an essential school supply, Bertram said. He said it would be important for students to have them and take them home each day in the event of quarantine or a class transition to remote learning.
Loftus said a team of about 30 district staff members and organizations began working in mid-August to help troubleshoot for families who didn’t have access to reliable internet or devices.
“A lot of it is happening at the building level; students are self identifying or teachers are noticing that students aren’t coming online or looking into neighborhoods where they know its an issue,” Loftus said.
Loftus said 22 students were identified in the initial review, but the district is anticipating more students will be found as teachers get into a routine of monitoring students online participating.
The district originally thought helping families get hotspots, which rely on phone data to create a wifi network, would be the answer. It quickly learned hotspots are provider specific and often run up a phone bill.
“Some families are eligible to participate in a low-cost Spectrum provided service,” he said. “That is usually the least expensive option because using data can get pretty pricey.”
He said there are some families living in non-permanent housing where internet though a provider like Spectrum is not available, in which case a hotspot would probably be the only option.
Loftus said he has heard of some students completing classwork by accessing the district’s wifi from outside of school buildings. But as the weather turns cold, he said there’s concerns over where those students will go for internet.
The district is also still working out if or how it could provide financial assistance to families.
“It’s been really important that we have these school-based liaisons that are doing the boots-on-the-ground work because that provides a level of personal contact and connection,” he said. “It’s a personalized and respectful way to help them get what they need.”
Thrive, a local organizations with parent liaisons in K-8 schools, has been helping to identify those families who might need assistance or feel overwhelmed navigating the online learning platform, said Cindy Ballew, the organization’s parent program manager.
“For the most part the need has been met but that’s not to say there aren’t families that still need support,” she said.
She said the organization works to identify what barriers families might be facing and does what it can to help, including providing emotional support to overwhelmed parents.
Thrive liaisons have helped to sign families up for Spectrum internet accounts, find or buy electronic devices, learn how to navigate Canvas and listen to concerns over the new responsibilities parents face in educating their children.
Ballew said there’s a lot of uncertainty facing parents and caregivers, not knowing if their child will need to quarantine or if their school will move to 100% remote. Many parents are left navigating childcare and how it’ll impact jobs at a moments notice.
“Parents really need to take it day-by-day,” she said. “And we try to be a support for them.”