School District Provides Internet Access, Food, Laptops to Students During Remote Learning

After the Oberlin City School District went remote last month due to the COVID-19 pandemic, administrators and teachers are having to employ some creative techniques to ensure K-12 students can equitably continue with their education. The absence of in-person classes has caused disruptions for families who depend on schools for childcare, free or reduced-price lunches, and educational opportunities that they may not have access to at home.

School districts across the country are transitioning to educating students online, a move that presents additional challenges for some Oberlin families. The district conducted an informal survey a couple of years ago that revealed that 18 percent of the district’s students did not have internet access at home, according to the public school’s district IT Coordinator Steve Nielsen.

“As soon as the news started coming out of China … the state started sending surveys to the tech coordinators throughout the state assessing what our technical capacity was as far as providing equipment to students and providing online learning,” Nielsen said. “Once they started asking those questions, we had a good idea that this was coming down the line.”

For the first week of remote schooling, teachers put together paper packets with educational materials for every student so that they could continue learning regardless of whether or not their home had access to the internet. 

“Some teachers made individualized packets for the students — these provided reinforcement [and sometimes] hands-on projects, and different things for the kids to do,” said Oberlin City Schools Superintendent David Hall.

Over the course of that first week, many packets had to be delivered to students’ houses individually. During this time, the district partnered with the Oberlin Cable Co-op and the City of Oberlin, who provided $26,000 in funding from the Sustainable Reserve Fund, to provide free internet for families without access. Now, internet has been installed in a majority of those households, with solutions for the remaining families on the way.

“We’ve got about 20-some families who are outside of the co-op service area,” Nielsen said. “So right now we’re working with Verizon, Sprint, and AT&T to get pricing on mobile hotspots to provide internet access to those that aren’t able to be serviced by the co-op.” 

Another major barrier to remote learning was that around a quarter of the students didn’t have access to a computer at home, so the district began distributing laptops to students on loan. According to Nielsen, schools have prepared 250 laptops to be sent home to students and have passed out 150 laptops so far.

Now, teachers are transitioning away from paper packets and towards online platforms such as Google Classroom, Remind, Google Meets, and Zoom. 

“In the high school and the middle school, for most part, teachers had already utilized Google Classroom, so it was natural for them to be able to give kids information — not only packets, but do some work online as well,” said Director of Curriculum William Baylis. “The two elementaries were not necessarily ready to make that dive ahead and use Google in that fashion. So getting them some professional development has been crucial.”

Teachers from Oberlin High School led sessions with teachers from the elementary schools to help them learn how to use Google Classroom and Zoom. Some teachers have decided to record lectures for students to watch at their convenience, and others have set up virtual office hours for students to ask questions. For the most part, it is up to the individual teacher to decide what kind of remote instruction is best for their classes. 

An additional concern for the district was ensuring that all students had secure access to food. 

“More than half our kids [qualify for] free or reduced lunch,” Baylis said. “How we were going to feed those kids, making sure they had meals — that was a priority for us.” 

Oberlin City Schools will receive funding through the National School Lunch Program and will continue to provide food for eligible students. The district is providing breakfasts and lunches that can be picked up by parents and students and integrating social distancing measures in that process. 

“Even before we heard that they were going to get food vouchers or we were going to be reimbursed … we were just ready to bite the bullet and take that as a loss from the general fund because we just knew what our families and our kids needed,” Baylis said.

As with life in almost every aspect of the country, it is unclear when Oberlin’s schools will be able to re-open for in-person classes. The official stay-at-home period for Ohio, according to Governor Mike DeWine, is currently extended to May 1, but it remains uncertain whether or not regular life will actually be able to resume at that time. The governor’s office does not communicate directly with the school district. 

“We just find out on those updates at two o’clock like everyone else,” Hall said. “We pretty much have to play it by ear until we get the word from the governor’s office, [but] I know our teachers are preparing for if he extends it past May 1. … We hear rumors that it’s going to go longer.”

If the remainder of the semester continues online, the district will have to navigate additional challenges. Graduating seniors may not get in-person graduation ceremonies and miss big events like prom, while other students might fail to meet key learning goals. Baylis worries about the impact that remote learning might have on students, particularly students who are already at an economic disadvantage. 

“They’re gonna lose a quarter to a third of the school year if we don’t go back,” Baylis said. “So [we’re] making sure that we’re really strategic and thinking about what [kids need] to have before they leave their particular grade — particularly for the third grade reading guarantee.”

At the state level, all standardized testing has been canceled for the rest of the school year. Baylis is concerned that this will have an impact on students’ education going forward. 

“There’s really no assessment to be able to say where this kid is at the end of the year and be able to hand that data off to the next teacher the following year,” Baylis said. He added that he hopes to have teachers communicate with the teachers for the next grade level to assess what each student might have missed this spring. 

For Hall, remote instruction is not ideal even with all the recent changes that have been made by the district as a result of the pandemic.

“We want the students here in school but want to be safe at the same time,” Hall said. “I don’t think anything could take the place of an in-person teacher. … You can’t take the place of walking around, the support, the visual cues, different learning styles — those types of things I don’t think can be relayed through online instruction. But I think we’ve all been doing the best we possibly can with the scenario we have.”