Education and COVID-19 – Part II – Technology

Schools began their transition from in-person classes to various other platforms in March when DHS ordered schools closed for the remainder of the school year. While 42 school districts had virtual charter schools to pull curriculum from, and some schools had begun online programming to offset winter school closures, it became clear to school administrators quickly that access was a limiting factor for many in their districts. School districts that did not already have computers or tablets for all students needed to purchase them and distribute them. Districts had to assess the internet accessibility for families. Districts purchased hotspots, upgraded filtering software, and changed internet data plans to provide data to families who could not afford their own.

Northeastern Wisconsin – Dealing in Reality

The Wheeler Report met with four rural school administrators to discuss how their districts moved online, what has worked, what they learned, and what they plan to do in the fall. The four school districts make up a cohort of northeastern Wisconsin: Florence County – Ben Niehaus, District Administrator, Niagara – Nathaniel Burklund, Superintendent, Goodman-Armstrong Creek – Allison Space, Superintendent, and Pembine – Andy Space, District Administrator.

PEMBINE – Space said the school district was not 1:1, meaning they did not have a Chromebook for each student when the schools were closed, but now they are 1:1 for everyone except 4K through 1st grade. To accomplish that the school district spent most of their $44,000 in CARES Act funding buying Chromebooks or tablets and hotspots. Space said the school district is having to pay for the data usage for those hotspots and notes that going forward the district will ensure only the school Chromebooks will be able to log onto the hotspots for use since the data usage is high. When the school district first went to online platforms the students, the teachers, and to some extent the parents were excited to try something new, but Space said the novelty wore off quickly and as interest has waned and so has student participation. Space said one issue for families in his district is older students at home are likely having to babysit other siblings or other families’ children because parents need to go to work and daycare is not available. He said reality for these families is supporting the family is the first priority, and if the kids are at home, school is not. Space said the school district has learned a lot about their families. It has taught the teachers and the school district to work more collaboratively, to be more flexible, and to have patience. Space said the connectivity for internet is an issue and said he hopes the Legislature finally deals with internet and technology. Space said it might be time to do something on a national level like when the nation made electricity available to everyone.

GOODMAN-ARMSTRONG CREEK – Allison Space said being the second smallest school district in the state has had some advantages during the pandemic because they had strong relationships and communication with their families making it easier to have candid conversations. Space said, “This really was a crisis, and now we need to recover.” Space said when students are in school parents know there is accountability for the students learning and doing their work, yet when students were online and expectations were unclear the accountability dropped and school no longer became the first priority for the students or the parents.  Space emphasized the teachers have learned a significant amount about how to be virtual and how to increase use of technology in the classroom. However, Space said the mental health component has led to concerns for teachers. She said teachers and students are having discussions about how to help friends with depression and anxiety, but teachers are having a harder time with knowing what is a discussion and what is a situation calling for concern when they are only interacting online. Space said there is a lot lost in translation when students and teachers are not face to face. Additionally, she said there needs to be honest discussions about teacher expectations and limitations.  Teachers are making themselves available 24/7 right now – online classes, emailing, texting, chatting, phone calls, lesson plans, etc. Space wants to work on designing clear expectations going forward for students, parents, and teachers.

NIAGARA – Nathaniel Burklund said their district was lucky because they did not have to purchase hotspots, and only had 30 students that needed devices and the district was able to supply those. Burklund said they did have to invest in better protective software for filtering out internet websites students could not have access to. The program they use is the same filter program provided in the school, but they needed to upgrade in order to transfer that protection out to the devices outside of school. Burkland said their school district is working on credit recovery for students over the summer, bringing up students who are in danger of failing, or who did fail a class and need to recover those credits to move forward next year. Burkland said if they do any summer school classes they will be enrichment classes which would be done outside, like physical education and art. Burkland said going forward they have a better idea of what might need to be done if schools were to close again, and the first step would be to purchase more Chromebooks.

FLORENCE COUNTY – Ben Niehaus said the Florence County district is one of the larger geographical districts in the state, but they were able to get to 100% connectivity with their students. However, Niehaus highlights that to obtain 100% connectivity involved a lot of work on the districts part, including working with internet providers, purchasing equipment, installing internet for families who could not afford access, and paying for data. Niehaus said it would not have been possible to bring everyone online if Florence County had not received a broadband grant in 2017 to upgrade access in the county. Yet the school is paying for internet access for families who cannot afford it, $3200 for March and April alone. Niehaus said they will not be holding summer school; in a normal year 4-6 students would need credit recovery and this year they have 13 students.  Niehaus discussed different models they are considering for how to bring students in for credit recovery, yet there are a lot of logistics to work through, including insurance liability issues.

All four school district administrators discussed what school will look like moving forward.  All four schools will be starting on September 1 and hope to go through until Christmas break. The group said they are waiting to hear about the recommendations from DPI for opening school in the fall.  They were very respectful in saying they know that DPI has the best of intentions, and that everything being worked through is for the safety of the students, the school staff, and the families of the students, but said the ‘reality’ of what the school districts have and what needs to be likely will not be the same. The group used the example of transporting kids to school and temperature testing kids before they get into buildings.  The administrators highlighted they simply don’t have the ability to increase busing, and scanning all kids before they enter the building cannot be done quickly, which means they may have to adjust the start time and/or buildings master schedules. The schools do not have a school nurse, and some staff are scheduled between buildings and districts and won’t be available to stay at one location. They are concerned there will be disconnect between what recommendations come forward and what they are really able to do. Concerns were raised about the level of liability for schools when they cannot follow all the proposed guidelines.

Green Bay School District

In a separate interview, the Wheeler Report talked with Green Bay Area Public School District Superintendent Dr. Michelle Langenfeld about the challenges of closing down the school district after the DHS orders in March.

Green Bay has over 21,000 students in 42 schools (4 high schools, 2 charter schools, 4 middle schools, 3 K-8 schools, 25 elementary schools, 1 alternative school, and 3 early childhood centers). The school district is 44.5% White, 28.7% Hispanic, 9.2% Black, 7.4% Asian, 3.8% American Indian, 6.4% two or more nationalities, and 1% Pacific Isle. The district has over 3,000 staff members, and 59.4% of their students have free & reduced lunch. The 2017-18 school year saw an 88.3% graduation rate, with a 96.7% 4-year cohort graduation rate for students who remain in the same high school all 4 years.

Langenfeld said the first priority for the district was communication, and they feel they have done well during the crisis to communication with students, families, and the staff. Green Bay provides all of their information in four different languages: Spanish, Somali, Hmong, and English. Additionally, the district has language line translators, and they make interrupters available when needed. Langenfeld explained that the school was leaving for spring break when DHS ordered schools closed, so every effort was made to get all the needed supplies to students and families before everyone left for spring break. The District was set up for 1:1 technology for grades 6-12 with students taking the Chromebooks and hotspots home. In the elementary schools the students had technology in the classrooms, which were stored in charging carts, so the district needed to purchase chargers and hotspots in order to send them home for student use. The district worked by grade to purchase the additional equipment needed and distributed to students. In the next few weeks, the district will have Chromebooks distributed to all elementary students, who were in need of a device at home. Like other districts in the state, Green Bay uses the Kajeet wifi hotspots which come with filtering software for internet protection, and only allow the school Chromebooks to connect.  While the rural areas of the district may not have internet access, the urban areas are dealing with bottlenecks in bandwidth from so many people in a community trying to be online at once, leaving many with speeds too slow to be online virtually for class.

While the school district ended up spending about $180,000 for technology needs, the cost for printed information packets was more. All students at the elementary level needed a continuation of learning, which meant the school district had to make packets similar to the work they were doing in the classroom for students and their parents. The school district printed those packets, distributed them, and drop shipped two mailing, which included five scholastic books , including some in Spanish for students in the bilingual program. The cost for printing, purchasing, and shipping of the first mailing of books was approximately $50 per students. For 10,000 students, that cost the district $500,000.

When asked about the difficulties about closing, Langenfeld said the most challenging part was the reality that would not be turning in the 2019-20 school year. For a long time students, parents and school officials believed the shutdown was only going to be a few weeks, but as the crisis continued it became clear that students would not be returning to the classroom for the remainder of the school year. Langenfeld said at that point the inequities, especially in broadband access, became even more clear. Langenfeld explained that for some students there was great support at home from parents and older siblings to help them connect to the internet or continue their education. For many families, their jobs moved them home to remote work and they could help their kids. For others, like essential workers, the parents were still working outside the home and there was less support and aid to the students for educational purposes. As discussed by other districts, for many families jobs were lost and education was not the first priority.

Langenfeld went on to discuss the emotional impact of the school closure and the crisis on the students. She said, “Not only do we have the potential on students lost learning opportunities, but it could take a toll on students that we can’t even measure yet.” Langenfeld said the social distancing and quarantining all have a significant impact on the students and the district is working to support those needs.

As school districts look to the fall to reopen their schools, one concern is transportation. Lagenfeld said they are talking with their bus services, checking out what other districts are doing, and looking at the CDC recommendations. Transporting more than 6,000 students in a socially distanced manner isn’t feasible. Langenfeld explained that a normal bus can carry 77 students, but by the social distance guidelines, reports have indicated that only 13 students can be transported. Langenfeld said they are working with DPI to find other ways to mitigate the risk.

The Green Bay School District just completed two large surveys of their district about comfort levels of parents, students, teachers and staff returning to school September 1. Langenfeld said they are planning for three different comfort possibilities because they are finding that some will not return to schools, some will return in limited capacity and want both online and in-person classes (referred to as blended learning), and some will return as usual. The district is currently looking at what gating criteria will be in place, how to purchase PPE and what levels of PPE will be needed and for whom, and other areas of safety that need to be address.

Langenfeld ended the interview by saying, “We want to our very best to ensure that we have taken every step and precaution to ensure safety and well being while providing the very best education. Ensuring equity and access while keeping everyone going forward.”

Broadband and Internet Access

Maps of Broadband access in Wisconsin, available through the Public Service Commission Broadband website:

Josh Patchak, the Executive Director of Technology and Information for the Green Bay School District, explained that internet access is an issue for families in both rural and urban areas of Wisconsin. Explaining the need for more bandwidth and in-home routers in urban areas. Patchak said they have been working with DPI and the PSC to get service to families in need who cannot afford internet access, using innovative programs with local telcos and school districts to get people connected. Some districts have partnered with large providers to help boost internet access, and hotspots have been distributed, but they cap data and work on cell reception which is simply not an option for many. Patchak said it’s not just the kids, families who have lost jobs need access to the internet to complete UI applications and to look for new jobs.

Districts Write Their Legislators

School administrators have sent letters to legislators about the closure of schools.

In a letter from Bowler School District Administrator Jeffery Sauer to his state senator and representative:

To address the Internet challenges, The Bowler School District enacted several plans. First, we added wifi hubs to 5 of our school buses. These buses continue to park at strategic locations throughout the district for 2-3- hours at a time in order to provide internet access and to continue to support our local bus contractor. Our families are able to pull up to the bus and access the Internet from their vehicles. In addition, the district purchased 15 Cradlepoint wifi access devices and added 5 more hotspots to our already existing 10. We were required to change our data plans in order to allow for unlimited access to the Internet. Our technology person has been forced to work on creating security measure for these devices through the cell phone company. It is unfortunate that some businesses took advantage and charged our district services charges and fees to change our contract to meet the families’ needs. The Stockbridge-Munsee tribe has also been an amazing partner by increasing their signal strength at several locations throughout the reservation to allow for families to access the Internet from their vehicles as well. This situation has shone a huge spotlight on the inequity to Internet access for small rural school districts. There must be a way to close this digital divide and ask for your help in doing so.”

Many schools have made a conscious effort over the past decade to bring technology into the schools, including working to make sure every student has a computer – especially higher levels, like junior high and high school. Yet, not all schools have been able to make this a reality as quickly as they would like, and many younger students are unprepared to complete online activities without assistance or without proper internet safety guidance.

It is not just students having problems accessing the internet, teachers in rural communities also don’t have internet access, or with the limited internet access they do have they are unable to maintain the connection speed to have online classroom meetings with students. Students and teachers alike across the state of Wisconsin are driving to schools and sitting in the school parking lots in their cars to have access to Wi-Fi to learn and teach.

Technology Support

While schools are working hard to provide technology and internet access to students, that means technology support and internet safety concerns. School districts receiving E-rate funding are required to comply with the Children’s Internet Protection Act, or CIPA, mandating they monitor how students are using the Internet.

One area of protection for schools to monitor is inappropriate access. Some school districts rely on blocking technology, yet that is generally in a school setting and can be more difficult to do on home computers and school hotspots. The problem with only using blocking software is the schools turn over control to third parties to determine appropriateness of material for students. Blocking software can also prevent students from accessing perfectly appropriate material almost 20% of the time.

Schools attempt to teach students in the classroom about being responsible cyber citizens. When students are given computers in the classroom setting, teachers work with students to understand copyright, legal issues involving hacking, the spread of viruses and scams, protecting personal information, use of email, and their internet footprint. With schools so quickly moving students to an online platform, teachers may not have had the opportunity to teach students these valuable lessons, especially younger learners.

Another concern for schools is the use of hotspots by students and families for other uses. In some homes, parents or family members have been laid off and may be using a student’s computer and hotspot to access online forms to complete unemployment insurance or job searches.