Coronavirus: Ohio Schools Spend $50K on Wireless Data

Columbus Schools — the state's largest district, with about 50,000 students — has gone online, with staff doling out 15,480 laptops to families over 10 days, training teachers, and assigning students email addresses.

by Alissa Widman Neese, The Columbus Dispatch / April 8, 2020
Tada Images/Shutterstock

(TNS) — The Columbus Board of Education approved spending a total $50,900 Tuesday night to purchase unlimited data plans from Verizon Wireless to keep students without internet access learning during a state-ordered shutdown of school buildings due to the coronavirus outbreak.

Columbus City Schools — the state's largest district, with about 50,000 students enrolled — went online for districtwide virtual instruction for the first time on Monday. Employees doled out 15,480 district laptops to families over 10 days, trained teachers, and assigned students email addresses to prepare.

To continue the efforts, board members during their first virtual meeting online Tuesday accepted a donation of 509 wireless hotspots from the Columbus nonprofit I Know I Can, a college access organization, to help students access the internet from home.

The board also approved purchasing the unlimited data plans from Verizon Wireless for $39 per month per device so more than 500 students can use the hotspots.

Information is coming soon regarding how families without internet access can obtain the devices and the data plan, board President Jennifer Adair said.

Officials and board members acknowledged there is a long way to go before all students have an equal, seamless experience, though.

"We don't want to forget that our students are still facing other challenges," Superintendent Talisa Dixon said. "But we are an institution of learning, and we are going to make sure that learning does not stop."

In the weeks to come, students will access self-paced online learning platforms with content tailored to their grade. Educators are expected to monitor their progress, host regular "office hours" virtually and reach out to the families of struggling students. They can also provide enrichment for students who need more challenges.

Columbus City Schools will evaluate its needs beyond this initial batch of hotspots and explore all options to get additional devices, which are now in high demand among schools nationwide, spokesman Scott Wortman said.

In the meantime, as a temporary solution, wifi signals at school buildings are being boosted, so students can access the internet from the parking lots and sidewalks outside.

District officials also will distribute additional Google Chromebook laptops to families that missed the initial roll-out, and those with multiple students who need another. Families can call 614-365-6471 to request a device.

Learning will take a pause when the district observes spring break April 10-17, but will otherwise continue online until further notice.

School buildings in Ohio are closed through at least May 1, and Gov. Mike DeWine has said it's possible they won't reopen this school year.

Board member Carol Beckerle, a retired teacher, said she hopes the district uses this unprecedented situation to plan for a future filled with online learning opportunities for every student.

In central Ohio, 10% of student households don't have a computer and 17% lack access to broadband internet, according to a 2019 Associated Press analysis of census data.

"One of the biggest hurdles to closing that gap is getting technology in the hands of all of our students," Beckerle said. "Now we've committed to doing that."

Board member Eric Brown agreed.

"What I hear from a lot of people is they want to return to 'normal,' or they want to get back to 'the way things were' ... and I don't think that's where we should be," Brown said. "Sometimes it takes something as substantial and significant as this to get our attention."

Tuesday's conversations and votes all occurred online, as board members will continue to meet virtually and livestream video of the gatherings on Facebook live throughout the pandemic, in accordance with recently approved state laws.

Since school buildings remain closed, Columbus City Schools officials have once again postponed a series of meetings of a 24-person "millage committee" that had hoped to discuss possibly placing a tax levy on the November ballot.

The first of four meetings was scheduled for March 12 and then rescheduled for April 6.

It is now planned for April 27 and will be hosted virtually, similarly to school board meetings. Meetings will continue May 4, 11 and 18.

The meetings are scheduled for 5:30-7:30 p.m. and will be available for viewing on the district's Facebook page and YouTube channel.

Any upcoming committee meetings of the Columbus Board of Education, such as Thursday's 9 a.m. policy review committee, will also occur virtually on Facebook.

Meanwhile, a state hearing for a district principal facing termination is indefinitely postponed, district spokeswoman Jacqueline Bryant said.

Michelle Milner, 53, the former principal of Columbus Scioto 6-12, is accused of illegally suspending special needs students and documenting the missed days as unexcused absences, in violation of state and federal laws and district policies. Officials suspended her without pay Feb. 18 and began the process of firing her.

Her hearing was scheduled for March 25.

"The parties have agreed to continue the hearing to an undetermined date," Bryant said.

The Ohio Department of Education is responsible for assigning a referee to privately hear the case.

©2020 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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