Mar 29, 2020 - Technology

Schools get creative to keep students connected

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

School districts are exploring ways to keep their homebound pupils connected to the classroom, even though many students don't have the internet service or devices they need to do assignments.

Why it matters: All teachers face the problem of "summer slide" — when students lose skills during summer breaks. This year will be doubly hard because students are losing between one and three additional months of in-classroom instruction due to coronavirus-driven closures.

What's happening: Public-private partnerships are playing a central role. School districts don't have the budgets to pay for service or provide devices to families, so they're relying on nonprofits and private companies to fill the gaps.

In Texas, a nonprofit that gives refurbished computers to students saw demand skyrocket as the pandemic spread, with 24,000 families entering a lottery for devices in a 48-hour span, Comp-U-Dopt executive director Colin Dempsey told Axios.

  • The organization helps families in Houston and Galveston. The Houston Independent School District is shifting to a distance learning model, and area stores are running out of laptops and computers, adding to the spike in demand, he said.
  • 88% of the families applying for the devices make less than $50,000 a year, he said. 
  • “It’s overwhelming, honestly,” Dempsey said. “We had to turn our phones off because they're ringing so much.”

In Southern California, the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District is working with startup ISP Wander to provide free high-speed internet to all local families with school-aged children for the rest of the academic year.

  • The fixed-wireless service is normally $25 a month and serves about 20,000 area households.
  • "Public-private partnerships during this challenging time are really critical," Wander CEO Dave Fields told Axios. "With all the uncertainty of when schools will go back, we wanted to alleviate some of that stress and make it possible for everyone to work from home through the end of the school year."

In Maryland, Montgomery County Public Schools are distributing the district's limited supply of Chromebook laptops to students who don't have access to a computer or laptop at home. The district will make available a limited number of WiFi hotspots at a later date.

In Philadelphia, Comcast CEO Brian Roberts and his family donated $5 million to help pay for 50,000 Chromebooks for students in the Philadelphia School District to use for online lessons in April. The district estimated in 2019 that only about half of students in grades 3–12 have the equipment they need for online classes.

Yes, but: The supply of hotspot devices is limited among the increased demand from schools and businesses, notes Angela Siefer, executive director of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance.

The big picture: Broadband access at home has become the lifeline for families during the COVID-19 crisis to keep up with news, work remotely and access educational content for their kids.

  • Topeka, Kansas, Mayor Michelle De La Isla has put out a plea for philanthropic help to support families in getting connectivity.
  • "We can come up with some sort of creative technical assistance so all our kids have some digital equity," she said. "Without internet, how are these families getting information about the crisis? It's one of our biggest gaps."
  • The FCC estimates that 21 million Americans don't have access to high-speed broadband, according to its most recent report.

What companies are doing: 

  • AT&T says qualified schools can activate new lines on data-only plans for school-issued tablets, 4G LTE-enabled laptops and hotspot devices at no cost for 60 days.
  • Comcast is offering its low-income broadband program, Internet Essentials, at no cost for 60 days to new customers, and it's increasing the speed of the program.
  • Meanwhile, Fox TV-owned stations in D.C. are working with the Washington Teachers’ Union to air lessons beginning March 30 for students who lack access to internet service or computers during school closures.
  • Many home internet providers have waived data caps for existing customers.

At the federal level, the Federal Communications Commission waived rules in its schools and libraries broadband funding program that may have stopped internet providers from donating increased capacity or hotspot devices.

Between the lines: While broadband providers are trying to help their communities in this unique situation, they're still for-profit companies, said Steve Nason, director of research at Parks Associates, a market research firm.

  • "The question is, how do you put the toothpaste back in the tube?" said Nason. "They're obviously trying to help people, but in the long term, the ultimate goal is to convert them to paid subscribers or to upgrade their service."

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