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Making school from home work for everyone

Marcia Wheeler readily admits that she is “not so great with computers,” but with two of her children in school when buildings closed in March to help curb the spread of COVID-19, she said she found ways to add teaching duties to her day.

“I had kind of a bumpy start,” said Wheeler, whose son William is in kindergarten and Paeton is in fourth grade. “I am a stay-at-home mom and this is all new for me. I had to figure it out.” 

While Wheeler was able eventually to meet the unexpected technology challenges, for some it was more difficult. 

For technical support, students, staff and families in two of the northernmost school districts, Kent City and Cedar Springs, rely on Chris Dart, Kent ISD technology coordinator.

“During this time it has been a little different than how we have supported the districts in the past,” Dart said. “Some of our biggest challenges have come from shifting away from being able to help students and staff in person. Helping out remotely through email or phone with students and families can be difficult at times.”

In addition to technology support personnel such as Chris Dart in Kent City and Cedar Springs, Kent ISD provides services throughout its member districts including:
• Device setup (laptop/Chromebook/iPad), deployment, support and management
• Classroom technology support, such as projectors, document cameras and sound amplification systems
• Troubleshooting staff & student problems with hardware or software
• Managing user accounts, access controls and IT infrastructure – from the data center to the classroom.
• Inside cabling
• Wireless networks
• Switches, routers
• Firewalls
• Servers and storage

Source: Glen Finkel, Kent ISD Kent ISD’s director of Information Technology/Data Services

Complicating the problem, he said, was the uncertainty about individual family circumstances, including some with parents at home, working and not working; others with parents primarily absent during the day; and still others staying with relatives or friends.

Wheeler acknowledged her family was one of the least challenged, since her husband has also been home since early March. “Having him here has been a real blessing for us,” she said.

William Wheeler, 6, finds plenty of kindergarten work on the computer (courtesy)

Equipment Distribution

The top priority, said Dart, was families without computers in their home. One of the earliest and biggest challenges facing the technology coordinators was to figure out a way to get the devices into the hands of the students quickly and safely. 

“Our list of responsibilities did not change during this closure period, but it has been made more difficult by having less access to our facilities and users,” said Glen Finkel, Kent ISD’s director of Information Technology/Data Services. He said the IT department deployed thousands of Chromebooks and other devices to households across the Kent ISD service area.

An additional challenge was that most of the devices sent out “were not originally set up for home use and were wired into charging carts,” Finkel said. “Once prepped, the devices still had to be deployed to students and the inventory updated to track the device assignment.” 

He also noted that the work needed to adapt devices for home use will need to be reconfigured one by one when they are returned for classroom use. 

Since the Wheeler family already has a desktop computer, they weren’t first in line for device distribution. “At first, we only did packets that came from the school, but we got one (Chromebook) in the second round and then Paeton could feel more like what he was doing at school,” said Wheeler.

“We only used computers for a few things  at school, like Khan Academy and typing.com,” Paeton said. The biggest change for him, though, was that “the teachers aren’t always right next to us. They circle round and round and provide comments. Now I have to figure stuff out or wait for an answer.”

Kindergartner William Wheeler uses the computer for school work while at home (courtesy)

Finding New Connections

Dart said another hurdle to be tackled was that not all families have the internet at home.

The district worked to provide information on free Wi-Fi in the area and allowed students and families to utilize the district’s Wi-Fi from their vehicles — for those with transportation.

“For those families without any connectivity, we were able to procure some cellular hotspots,” he said. “In conjunction with a school-provided Chromebook, they are now able to participate in remote learning.”

Wheeler said Paeton missed the classroom, but said she’s thankful the district did what it could during the unexpected closure. 

“I know he loses a lot during the summer,” she said. “At least they helped keep the feel of school, and that makes a difference.”

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Janice Holst
Janice Holst
Janice Holst is a reporter covering Kent City and Sparta. She has been both a teacher and a journalist. A former MLive reporter, she wrote features and covered local government and schools for Advance Newspapers for nearly two decades. She also was a recipe columnist and wrote features for Mature Life Style and occasional entertainment pieces for On The Town magazines. She lives in Sparta Township and enjoys spending some of her retirement hours writing the stories of the northern Kent County school districts. Read Janice's full bio or email Janice.

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