LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Jefferson County Public Schools is preparing to distribute 25,000 Chromebooks next week to families that need such devices as the district transitions to non-traditional instruction with schools across Kentucky closed until at least April 20 in hopes of limiting the spread of the novel coronavirus COVID-19.
JCPS Superintendent Marty Pollio highlighted the district’s plans to deliver remote education to nearly 96,000 K-12 students Friday, which includes sending out thousands of Chromebooks across the Louisville area to families of students who receive free or reduced-price meals, get special education, are homeless or are learning English.
The devices are limited to one per family, and if any are left over, the district plans to offer them to other families in the district through a lottery system.
Families will receive emails and phone calls starting Friday to begin the process of requesting the devices, which will then be mailed directly to homes. They’ll have until 5 p.m. Tuesday to request Chromebooks.
“It is our mission to make sure students who may be in need have access to the device first,” said Kermit Belcher, the district’s chief information officer.
Those devices will come in handy – if families have internet access at home. JCPS unveiled Friday online resources for teachers, students and families as the district begins non-traditional instruction on April 7, with teachers tasked with developing content on April 6.
Students and teachers will be able to access lessons through the district’s non-traditional instruction portal, which will also provide a gateway for teachers to connect with their classes virtually and post assignments in Google Classroom. Parents will also have access to online training materials so they can help their children with schoolwork, Pollio said.
District officials have been in talks with internet and data providers about the possibility of connecting families who lack access to digital resources, and Pollio said JCPS is working with the city and other organizations to provide up to 6,000 hotspots to families with special needs students.
The $2 trillion federal stimulus bill passed by Congress in response to the COVID-19 pandemic may also provide funding opportunities to offer more hotspots to families that lack connectivity, Pollio said.
Exactly how many JCPS households aren’t connected to the internet is difficult to determine, he said. Last year, a district survey found that about 90% of students had internet at home or through mobile data plans, he said.
But while some students get access to the internet remotely, data may be limited and phones are poor substitutes for devices like Chromebooks or tablets connected to high-speed internet as students are tasked with completing assignments in the coming weeks, Pollio said.
“It's difficult to say exactly how many of our families need that,” Pollio said, referring to internet access. “We talked a lot about was there a way to do a quick survey, and we found that difficult to do.”
Amber Ladd, the family resource coordinator for Mill Creek Elementary, estimated that most of the families she serves in the high-poverty school lack internet at home.
"I would say at least 65 to 70%," she told WDRB News on Thursday. "… Many of them have cell phone data as their primary source, and we all know that if a parent is gone at work or if they have to go out with that cell phone or there’s a limited data usage with their contract plan, that may not be feasible."
Some government-issued cell phones for those in poverty also lack the same functionality of smartphones, and many families depended on Louisville-area libraries, which have been closed during the COVID-19 outbreak, to surf the web, Ladd said.
“There’s been times where I’ve had to go to the library to checkout books with my kids, and the library was packed with kids,” Mill Creek parent Dyeisha Smith said. “They’re on the computers. Obviously those kids don’t have laptop computer access at home.”
Smith considers her family fortunate given their internet connectivity and the abundance of technology in her home, which wasn’t the case as recently as a year and a half ago.
She and her husband have four children, three of them JCPS students and one a freshman at Richland College in Dallas. The three oldest have their own laptops, and Smith shares hers with her youngest daughter, a second-grade student at Mill Creek.
Had a pandemic struck shuttered JCPS to in-person instruction two years ago, she says she would be among those requesting a Chromebook from the district.
“We wouldn’t have laptops in my house if this happened a year and a half ago,” Smith said.
The district will provide information on internet and data providers offering special deals during the COVID-19 pandemic. Spectrum, for instance, is offering 60 days of free wireless internet for families with K-12 or college students.
Whether the company has enough technicians to connect Louisville-area homes ahead of April 7 is unclear. Spectrum did not respond to messages seeking comment this week, and Pollio said the company has not shared how many homes it’s connected to the internet through its offer of free wireless access for 60 days.
“I think the hard part about that is how many employees they have and the capacity, they have to go implement those at a home in a quick turnaround,” said Pollio, noting that the district has had conversations with Spectrum and other providers.
“I think the best bet for us right now is hotspots as far as trying to get access to homes,” he continued. “That's what we're working on now, and hopefully we’ll have some announcements around that next week.”
Pollio said schools will keep in touch with families regardless of whether they have internet access at home to ensure they have the supports they need while in-person instruction is suspended until at least April 20, possibly longer.
Physical copies of learning materials will be distributed through the district’s 67 food service sites, and Pollio said the district is working on a plan to mail paper copies home to families who don’t pick them up.
Kevin Brown, Kentucky's interim education commissioner, has given districts an extra 30 days of non-traditional instruction that they can use thanks to Senate Bill 177, the COVID-19 relief bill for schools that Gov. Andy Beshear signed into law this week. He’s also urged school districts to prepare enough remote learning material to last through May 1.
Pollio reiterated his belief that it’s “nearly impossible” to replace traditional instruction with distance learning.
“Nothing replaces face to face instruction,” he said. “Kids being in front of a teacher is the most important thing that can happen.”
“But we're going to do everything we can to communicate with families and support them,” he added.
To that end, Ladd has given families in her care every means to contact her while in-person instruction is suspended at JCPS. She and a group of 22 others in the Mill Creek community, including 17 teachers, recently delivered food to students through the Blessings in a Backpack program.
“I specifically set up their route to where they were delivering to their students so that they would have a chance to interact at least one more time with our students during this downtime,” she said.
Still, Ladd worries that more pressing issues during this time of economic uncertainty will lead parents and guardians to think more about things like paying for necessities, looking for employment or finding childcare while they work instead of connecting their homes to the internet.
“I would not be surprised if they are the individuals who have worked in a lot of the companies that have been shut down,” she said.
“Some of them are working in basic, essential companies like the restaurants and the stories and other things like that are still operating, but the downside to that is they still have to go to work, but there’s no childcare centers that are open, there’s no schools that are open, there’s no one for childcare assistance for a lot of these families.”
Smith agreed with that sentiment, saying she knows others who are in such situations. She said she relies on her teenagers to help take care of things around the house while she’s gone.
Still, she’s not immune to the economic upheaval that COVID-19 has wrought in Kentucky, where thousands have flooded the state’s unemployment office seeking benefits.
Smith, who bolts seats on the assembly line at Ford’s Kentucky Truck Plant, isn’t sure how her pay be affected as the factory temporarily closes after a worker tested positive for COVID-19.
“No one saw this coming,” she said. “No one was prepared for this.”
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