School districts were forced to switch to at-home learning and rely more heavily on technology than originally planned this year due to the coronavirus pandemic. Before school begins in the fall, educators are reflecting on technology’s new role in education and preparing for the hurdles that accompany potential COVID-19 outbreaks.
“The pandemic and the need for online learning has emphasized the role of technology in education,” El Campo ISD Information Services Director Turk Krenek said. “We have witnessed the importance of reliable connectivity and as educators, we must do whatever we can to help close the Homework Gap.”
The ‘Homework Gap’ refers to students’ unequal access to reliable Internet during coronavirus-related school closures. This lack of access more drastically affects lower income, black and Hispanic families, as well as rural households, according to Pew Research Center.
In Texas, about 98 percent of households have at least basic Internet access, according to Connectednation.org. The same rate for rural counties is about 95 percent and for Wharton County is 90 percent.
ECISD officials estimate about 25 percent of students do not have reliable Internet access at home. Louise ISD IT Director Sandra Holik estimated about half of Louise students lacked necessary access.
“It’s hard to know for sure, because (students or parents) will say one thing,” Holik said.
After March 16, when both districts closed due to COVID-19, about 1,200 ECISD students took laptops home for remote education. Previously, students used class sets of the devices for in class assignments.
Schools were closed, but just like teachers, the ECISD and LISD tech departments didn’t stop working during the pandemic.
“We kept working right on through it,” Holik said. “(We) stayed busy as if the kids would’ve been there. (We were) trying to make sure the teachers had what they needed to offer online lessons, and get the kids to where they can connect”
Large numbers of students took home laptops during the closure, but neither district saw significant increases in damage. Overall, the devices performed well, Krenek said.
“Because of the availability of Chromebooks, most of our students were able to stay in regular contact with their classmates and teachers, and were able to successfully complete their course of study,” he said.
In March, 200 hotspots were ordered for ECISD students to use at home. The devices arrived at the end of May due to high global demand, Krenek said.
To offer Wifi access for students, antennas were installed in the El Campo High School and El Campo Middle School parking lots. Two mobile wifi connections that can be transported via school buses were also purchased.
Currently, LISD has 10 hotspots that can be checked out and taken home by students to complete school work. If needed the district will obtain more, Holik said.
The district also ran a hotspot during the closure for students to use from the Louise High School parking lot.
“With the heat of the summer, it might not be the greatest option, but we do have that available if necessary,” Holik said.
Before the pandemic, ECISD and LISD district leaders had been working toward having a one-to-one ratio of laptops and students. The ECISD school board authorized the purchase of 1,200 more laptops on June 4 and LISD trustees authorized 60 more on May 20 to prepare for any COVID-19 outbreaks in the upcoming school year.
“We definitely will be sending more (laptops) home for that,” Holik said. “We still have a ways to go in order to get actually working, and we don’t exactly know what’s going to happen yet as far as the beginning of the school year.”