Joliet schools face the test of bridging digital divide prompted by COVID-19

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Officials at Joliet Township High School District 204 and Joliet Public Schools District 86 say turning to full remote learning to start the 2020-2021 school year has gripped students and their families in different ways, but the decision all but widened the districts’ goal of bridging the digital divide amid the new normal prompted by the coronavirus pandemic.

“In terms of the effort, I think we did fairly well to get devices out to students as quickly as possible,” said John Armstrong, director of technology and information services for District 86.

District 86 had ordered a shipment of new Chromebooks, which Armstrong said they’re expecting in the coming weeks. He said a lot of students will be able to upgrade their device to a higher quality version.

Not everyone in District 86 schools had a device for remote learning in the spring.

“When the schools closed back in March, very early on we decided that we needed to distribute devices to our students,” Armstrong said.

Originally, students in grades six and seven had devices as part of the district’s 1:1 initiative, officials said. The pandemic prompted officials to expand their supply to meet the needs of students and their families.

Armstrong said most District 86 students did not have devices, but that’s no longer the case.

“At that point in time, we distributed Chromebooks to students in grades K-8 who might not have a device at home,” he said. “We’d done a lot of that back in March and April.”

Since then, District 86 has distributed devices to the remainder of its students — with the exception being those in pre-kindergarten who will receive an Android tablet.

The district has distributed more than 10,000 Chromebooks to students, to date.

Officials wanted to have all the devices prior to the start of the school year, but Armstrong said he doesn’t view it as a setback.

“This is a new thing for all of us,” he said.

With District 86 distributing Chromebooks to students came another issue: internet access.

“We do have a portion of our population without access to broadband internet in the home,” Armstrong said.

Officials wanted to do their part to help students and their families. The district set up a webpage where it houses links to resources, information and specials.

Armstrong said the district provided 100 hotspots to students as part of the 1:1 initiative prior to the spring.

This figure has expanded to nearly 600 districtwide.

Armstrong said the district still has a ways to go in distributing hotspots to students and that depends on the availability of funding.

Meanwhile, in District 204, most students were equipped with devices prior to the spring as part of a 1:1 initiative.

“As of right now, 98% of our students have devices,” District 204 Superintendent Karla Guseman said.

Instances arose, for example, when students may not have taken their devices home on a daily basis, Guseman said. The district has since distributed additional devices to assist with remote learning.

District 204 had distributed hotspots to students in the spring before the pandemic hit, at which point additional devices were provided to assist with the switch to remote learning.

To date, the district has distributed 1,123 hotspots to its students.

Guseman said District 204 is doing its part to address students’ needs.

“Families have the ability to contact us,” she said. “We do everything in our power to fill that need.”

The district is working to open up access to Comcast Internet services to students and their families, which Guseman said will be funded through the CARES Act.

She said the library is another great resource for those in need.

“We have a strong partnership with the Joliet Public Library,” Guseman said. “In fact, we have a partnership established, where between us and Joliet Public Library, we’re going to ensure all of our students have library cards.”

Remote learning has brought its share of difficulties and opportunities for students and teachers in Joliet schools.

Guseman and Armstrong said their districts have provided opportunities for professional development to better equip teachers for instructing in a remote learning environment.

“We’ve always had a great training program, and then we layered even more training opportunities this summer,” Guseman said.

“Our teachers really do a great job of helping students with their technology, but in terms of technology support, we have a support team that consists of both instructional technology experts and equipment experts,” Armstrong said.

Armstrong said the support team enables District 86 to help students and their families not only with making sure devices work and connect properly, but also helping them with how to use online resources.

Guseman said she believes District 204 was ready to support students with remote learning at the start of the school year because it had launched a 1:1 device initiative several years ago.

Armstrong said meeting the needs of District 86 students and their families is different under the remote learning model, but they are in good hands.

“Now that the crunch of the beginning of the school is starting to calm down, we really feel we will be able to continue to provide adequate support to our families,” he said.

Feeds,City: Joliet,Region: Joliet,Region: South Suburbs,Opinion

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October 13, 2020 at 12:06PM

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