When COVID-19 forced schools to shutter and move entirely online, school corporations in and around Monroe County rushed to help students who didn’t have stable internet at home so they didn’t fall behind.

But affording home internet access was a problem for many families before the pandemic, and it will remain a problem after the pandemic subsides. While schools likely won't close due to COVID-19 again, there will always be e-learning days caused by bad weather or emergencies, and students will always need internet to complete homework.

“It seems as though when we started moving into more electronic means of delivery of curriculum, it kind of coincided with the pandemic,” said Adam Terwilliger, director of information technology at the MCCSC. “We want to prepare students to be digital natives … but I think the pandemic accelerated our need.”

Additionally, an Indiana bill heading to Gov. Eric Holcomb could limit the number of e-learning days that aren’t at least 50% synchronous, or led by the teachers in real time. This could prove difficult for homes that don’t have internet stable enough to run programs such as Zoom or Google Meet. Some schools may cut back on e-learning in result.

It’s not equitable to expect students to do work online without providing them the equipment to do it, Terwilliger said. But sometimes, that’s hard to do.

Hotspots 'fulfilling a need' for MCCSC students

When the pandemic sent students home in 2020, the Monroe County Community School Corp. and other local school corporations coped by extending WiFi into school parking lots and onto school buses parked in various locations.

The most efficient fix, though, was to provide students with their own WiFi hotspots to take home. 

In August 2020, the MCCSC purchased 200 WiFi hotspots to give to students in need, Terwilliger said. In 2021, it ordered 200 more to keep up with growing demand. The hotspots were purchased through Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act funding and an in-kind donation from Source for Learning, a nonprofit organization based in Virginia.

No students have ever been turned away from receiving a hotspot, Terwilliger said.

“It’s something that’s gone surprisingly well for us,” he said. “It’s really fulfilling a need.”

Occasionally, families will call the school corporation to say they are still struggling with spotty service, Terwilliger said. But that isn’t something the school is able to help with.

“The only issues we have with (the hotspots) would be the same issues that families have with their access in dicier areas,” he said. “So like if we were on our phones and were out in a 3G area, it’s harder to get access to faster internet than if you were in an LTE area.”

Unreliable internet in certain coverage areas is a separate yet prevalent issue. But not being able to pay for internet in the first place is where the hotspots help. About 15% of households in Monroe County didn’t have a broadband internet subscription from 2015 through 2019, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.

In cases of spotty service, students can go to places such as the Monroe County Public Library to use the free WiFi. MCPL extended its WiFi into the parking lot several years ago and has more than a dozen computers available in the children’s and teen’s departments inside, said Josh Wolf, assistant director of public services.

“Usually, when I come in in the morning on any given day, there's a couple of cars in there with people in them with laptops or phones out, so I know they're using (the WiFi)," Wolf said. "Also, when I leave at night, there's usually a couple cars where people are sticking around and using the WiFi signal.”

The library also has about 60 portable WiFi hotspots that are always in use, often by families with children, Wolf said.

The need for hotspots for MCCSC students is less pressing now that the pandemic is unlikely to shut down schools again, Terwilliger said, but the hotspots aren’t going away.

“Pandora’s Box has been opened,” he said. “This is not something that we would ever entertain not having.”

The Richland-Bean Blossom Community School Corp. also started providing WiFi hotspots for students toward the beginning of the pandemic. The district plans to keep at least a few hotspots on a long-term basis for students who need them most, R-BB Communications Coordinator Brittany Tucker said.

Greene County schools unsure about future of WiFi hotspots

In neighboring areas such as Greene County, the need to provide students with internet is even greater.

In Greene County, almost 30% of households didn’t have an internet broadband subscription from 2015 through 2019, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.

Linton-Stockton and Eastern Greene schools received WiFi hotspots in 2020 through grants from the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund. Linton-Stockton Superintendent Kathy Goad said she uses a hotspot herself — otherwise she would be unable to work at home.

However, the hotspots for both corporations were purchased under contracts that expire this summer. Right now, neither district is sure the contracts will be renewed. 

“I can’t guarantee we’re going to be able to afford to extend that,” Eastern Greene Superintendent Trent Provo said.

Indiana bill could restrict e-learning

A House bill heading to Gov. Eric Holcomb could limit schools to three e-learning days that aren’t at least 50% synchronous. The bill, HB 1093, was adopted by the Indiana House and Senate last week.

Asynchronous instruction includes activities such as pre-recorded lectures and online discussion boards. Synchronous instruction would include live online class.

If the bill becomes law, it will go into effect this July. Schools could request waivers to this new rule under "extraordinary circumstances," the bill reads.

On e-learning days, students at Linton-Stockton schools who can’t get internet access have to complete the work after they return to school, Goad said.

“They would have to do the work after, along with the learning that they were doing in class,” she said. “It was just a disadvantage to those children.”

Eastern Greene schools require the same, Provo said. Sometimes, if an e-learning day was planned out far enough in advance, the schools could provide paper packets. But in instances like sudden bad weather or emergencies, that isn’t possible.

Goad said the House bill could affect how the school corporation determines its calendars in the future, meaning that e-learning days may be replaced with snow days.

“Whether the kids have access or not would certainly play into that, as well,” Goad said. “Because especially with the last two years, we don’t want our kids missing on-campus learning any more than what they have to.”

Provo said Eastern Greene schools try to implement as few e-learning days as possible for the same reason.

“There’s really no replacement for being in the classroom,” he said.

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