The digital divide

Local and state resources help families with remote learning

School districts and their students have had a complicated year, to say the least.


Ups and downs of reported COVID-19 cases in Thurston County has largely determined whether students would learn in classrooms or remotely, using home internet or WiFi connections to access coursework.

The county’s largest school district, North Thurston Public Schools, is currently operating with almost entirely remote learning, save for limited gatherings of no more than five students who are most in need of in-person education.

This setup presents a potentially sticky situation for families who don’t have reliable at-home internet connections — an issue at the heart of an initiative from the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI). OSPI, in a partnership with the service providers Comcast, Presidio and Ziply, announced last month that it was setting aside $8.8 million in federal CARES Act funds to provide service to up to 60,000 students in Washington through the remainder of the school year.

To qualify for the program, families must qualify for low income services or have had no at-home internet connection before August 2020. Derek Stewart, technology director for North Thurston Public Schools, said the OSPI program offers a long-lasting solution to families in need of a quality internet connection for their children’s education. Meanwhile, the school system is offering some solutions that, while temporary, are expected to be in-place for as long as remote education is the norm.

Anticipating a school year with mostly remote learning, North Thurston School officials sent out a survey to identify the families that needed help with at-home internet connections. Stewart said about half the families in the district replied. Roughly six percent of those families said they had internet connectivity issues.

The answer: hot spots

Before the pandemic, the school district had about 180 portable hotspots — a small router that allows WiFi connection. Anticipating a larger need oncoming, they purchased more. Now, the district has about 500. Although roughly 1,000 families in the district have reported needing more reliable WiFi, there were still some hotspots available as of October, said Stewart. He said that was likely due to families using other resources, like the state program. Some of the schools in the district allowed families to access WiFi from their parking lots.

For the families that need them, the hotspots have been working pretty well, said Stewart. Some in rural areas said they had to move the hotspot around to different areas of the house, in an effort to get a few more bars of service on their devices.

Although the hotspots will be available for use throughout the pandemic, they represent only a temporary fix to families lacking internet connections.

“It’s just completely different, the support we’ve had to provide our families,” Stewart said, adding that the pandemic has caused the most unique challenge of his career in information technology. The challenge of working in the district’s technology department is still easier than the challenges families and teachers face, he said.

One parent of a North Thurston Public Schools student told The JOLT News in a direct message that there was a lot of communication between the school district and parents on how to take advantage of resources, if needed.

Challenges continue to persist, as students are required to engage with educators in a new way. The Olympian reported earlier this month that North Thurston High School Principal Nick Greenwell said nearly half the student body at the high school had one failing grade.

Tech is a new challenge for teachers

Sally Harn, a teacher at the high school, said she has to ask more involving questions to keep students engaged in the material. Harn teaches for the school’s Family and Consumer Science Department.

“I think for teachers who are maybe not used to using so much technology, that has been very time consuming and a huge learning curve,” Harn said.

She also recognizes that it’s hard for students to stay engaged in these new conditions. She said she offers more of her time to one-on-one engagement these days, either through a virtual meeting with a student, or through email. More students ask questions over email than ever before, because they don’t have the option of asking questions in-person during class.

Harn said her colleagues have helped each other sort out any technological issues, and her students have been helpful in providing constructive feedback.  


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