St. Helens schools ready to deploy computers to students, wireless hotspots

PMG PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - A student picks up an iPad from school staff during a device pick up day for students at an elementary school in Tigard. Across Oregon, districts are distributing tablets and laptops to students as they gear up for distance learning while schools are shut down.On Tuesday, April 7, the St. Helens School District had its hands full.

A week earlier, the Oregon Department of Education warned districts throughout the state that schools might not reopen at all this academic year.

Instead, the state advised, school districts should prepare to implement "distance learning," remote-based learning that utilizes a combination of email and web-based platforms to deliver assignments to students.

The challenge? Not every household has high speed Internet or a computer, leaving many students without access to the tools needed to learn outside a traditional classroom setting.

This week, school officials were moving swiftly to figure out how to bridge the digital divide for students.

"We are very sensitive to the fact that not all families have Internet access and not all students have families able to support them instructionally," said Stacey Mendoza, community relations specialist for St. Helens School District. "The greatest challenge is connectivity. We are working to identify local wireless 'hotspots' for families to drive their cars to and connect to the Internet."

Teachers and staff are also evaluating which online platforms and video hosting sites will help teachers connect with students.

For those who need computers, many of the district's 2,300 Chromebooks will be distributed to local families.

"What is used for elementary will be different for middle and high school. It is important to remember that distance learning is not the same as a traditional classroom. Teachers are looking at multiple ways to provide instruction, give assignments and assess progress," Mendoza said.

In Scappoose, qualifying households were provided with a link for reduced-price Internet access.

"We are also very much aware that our families' financial situations may have changed drastically in the last several weeks," Scappoose School District Superintendent Tim Porter said in an April 1 letter to families. "Many Internet companies offer reduced Internet rates to families that qualify for the National School Lunch Program (NSLP). If your income has been reduced due to COVID-19, you may be eligible for NSLP."

At the state level, advocates are calling on districts and ODE officials to acknowledge that students' unequal access to Internet and computers is a challenge that must be addressed.

John Larson, president of the Oregon Education Association, the state's teachers union, said it's "crucial" that elected leaders ensure students aren't penalized for lack of resources or "inability to thrive" under the new circumstances.

"With some students lacking the proper technology, connectivity, resources or time to fully engage with a distance learning model, school districts must acknowledge and incorporate that reality into their Distance Learning for All plans," Larson said in an OEA statement last week.

The robust rollout of distance learning needs to happen by April 13, according to instruction from the state's education department.

It's one of many directives in what some school districts describe as a moving target, since Oregon Gov. Kate Brown last month ordered schools to shut down until April 28.

Porter addressed the rapidly changing education landscape in his letter.

"When we believed students would only lose a few days of school, the plan was potentially to make up some of those days in the summer; when we believed students would lose over a month of school, the Governor ordered schools to deliver 'supplemental education and learning supports to students to the extent practical.' Now that the possibility of losing the rest of the school year is before us, ODE is calling on school districts to provide Distance Learning for All, which would include new, graded content for students," Porter stated.

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