Trying to make virtual work and learning equitable is a challenge for most businesses and institutions, but one school district is working hard to make sure every student has a way to get access to the Internet and connection to education at the same time.
The Wayne-Westland Community Schools District is using its school buses to take WiFi hotspots to students – a unique use of its bus system, bus drivers and resources during a most unusual time in educational history, said John Dignan, the district’s superintendent.
“A lot of families are going through financial hardships and unemployment during the pandemic,” Dignan said. “We started thinking about the situation in late July, knowing we’d have to do virtual learning. The big thing that came up was how were we going to provide WiFI to some of our students who needed it the most?”
The Wayne-Westland Community Schools District estimates it has about 10,000 students who are learning from home during the pandemic. These students needed devices so they could connect to their teachers and the classroom. But many also needed access in a steady way to the Internet.
“It’s our mission to make poverty a surface characteristic, not a lifelong condition. I consider WiFi like water – it’s a must have. It levels the playing field,” Dignan said.
The solution came about with the buses. Every morning, the district sends out its school buses during regular school hours with hot spots on board. Students can connect to the Internet via these hot spots on the buses, giving them a good connection to the district and virtual learning as a result, Dignan said.
Another project the district is starting soon is a fund-raising effort to make sure kids have the food they need on the weekends and on school breaks. Many of the district’s students are on a free or reduced lunch program, so having access to food during those other days of the week is essential to health and learning, Dignan said.
“We base every decision here around what’s best for all children,” Dignan said. “I can’t say enough about the team here from food service to transportation to curriculum – the common goal is the whole child.”
He also praised the district’s staff for being willing to try something innovative and, admittingly, a little different than the norm.
“Teachers and our tech coaches are the unsung heroes in this new world of education and educational delivery,” Dignan said. “When I walk these buildings and see the teachers, I see how creative they are and their ingenuity and it’s inspiring. Some of the most amazing people that I’ve ever seen are here in our district.
“It’s exciting,” Dignan added. “It’s a great environment to work in – you know people have their hearts in the right spot. Their desire to help others is evident.”
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This team came together to brainstorm the idea behind the bus hot spots, letting homes connect to the Internet without having to go to another location. The district also set up a technology hotline so families can call with questions or to get help, Dignan added.
“The early calls coming in asked things like what do I do or how do I get started,” Dignan said. “Now, those kinds of calls have slowed. … We’ve built tutorials and they’re working.”
Finding ways to work through the pandemic and continue to offer educational opportunities has been hard, Dignan admitted. But he feels the team and their ideas are working well given the circumstances around the pandemic.
“People are bringing their ideas and they feel comfortable sharing them. It’s out-of-the-box thinking,” Dignan said. “Navigating this COVID-19 isn’t much fun but if there is one thing, virtual learning was coming anyway. This just accelerated the process.”
Moreover, teachers and teaching will improve because of these challenges, Dignan said.
“Teachers are lifelong learners, so they’re always learning new skills,” Dignan said. “Teachers want to be back in person, but now, they can really meet the needs of learners where they’re at, and they can prescribe online lessons outside of the school day if it comes to that.”