CORONAVIRUS

How Cedar Rapids schools are reaching students without at-home internet

Craig Barnum and Ryan Rydstrom on the district's search for more laptops, hot spots

A shared laptop cart seen in September 2018 holds laptops that can be checked out to supplement computers in classrooms
A shared laptop cart seen in September 2018 holds laptops that can be checked out to supplement computers in classrooms at McKinley Middle School in Cedar Rapids. The Cedar Rapids Community School District already was working on a plan to have a Chromebook for every middle school student before the coronavirus pandemic hit. “We put in our order for Chromebooks for the middle school before the closures happened, and that was very beneficial for us to already have that technology plan,” said Ryan Rydstrom, associate director of access and instructional design for the district. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — With buildings closed through the school year, school districts across the state are rushing to establish ways to connect remotely with students.

In the Cedar Rapids Community School District, which distributed laptops only to high school students at the start of this school year, the coronavirus pandemic revealed greater connectivity gaps than expected.

“We’re doing that foundational work of getting devices in kids’ hands and getting them access to the internet,” said Craig Barnum, executive director of digital literacy. “Without those two things, it’s a universal access issue, in my mind. It’s akin to having electricity and hot water.”

The district is trying to accelerate its purchasing of laptop devices and hot spots as it makes plans for school closures that could, in a worst-case scenario, stretch into the 2020-2021 school year.

“We need to have a plan in place if we do have closures next year, whether it’s at a single school or a districtwide closure like we’re experiencing now,” Barnum said. “We want to have a more robust iteration of what we could provide this spring.”

As the Cedar Rapids district provides voluntary learning opportunities to students both online and in print through this school year, The Gazette spoke to Barnum and Ryan Rydstrom, associate director of access and instructional design, about their plans to improve students’ connectivity.

Q: What has the district learned through coronavirus closures about technology access among your students?

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Rydstrom: Since the coronavirus hit and closed down schools after spring break, we were able to survey about 13,000 families about their preferred method of communication — do they want it via phone, via email or mailing — and we also asked if they have access to the internet. We found about 1,800 students don’t have access to reliable internet services at home. So that’s something that we’re looking into now, and it’s why we’re printing packets and mailing packets home as well.

Barnum: We had about 100 families at the high school level, 350 at middle school and just over 1,000 at the elementary level.

Q: When you say “reliable internet service,” how do you measure that? Would having a smartphone at home count?

Rydstrom: We would say no, a smartphone isn’t enough. When we ask the question, our numbers have stayed about 9 to 10 percent (of families say no). But we would ask them if they have the ability to do homework and do schoolwork, and so we don’t know if families are saying, ‘yes, my phone acts as that service, and so I’m going to say yes, I do have reliable internet.’

Barnum: There are a lot of reasons that’s not great data. Sometimes families misinterpret the question, and even though it’s a confidential survey, it can be embarrassing to admit not having internet access.

Q: How many hot spots does the district have now, and how many would you need to fill the gap?

Barnum: We’ve participated in a grant from Sprint. Last year, they gave us about 340 hot spots, and we deployed those with the high school Chromebook rollout. Our data at that time said that was the right number, but we made a dent with those hot spots at no cost to the district.

We reapplied this year and got it again, and they threw in an additional 325 hot spots. We’re getting those in July because of supply chain issues, so we’re close to 700 total through Sprint.

Then coronavirus struck, and we reassessed and found we had some additional needs at the high school level, and we assessed all our other levels too. We were scrambling after coronavirus broke out, and we had a heck of a time trying to find hardware. We found refurbished hot spots from Verizon and bought 100 of those.

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We’re working on a data plan. We’re hoping to meet the entire high school need before the end of the school year. That might be right at the end of the school year — this stuff’s hard to get a hold of.

Q: The district is 1:1 with Chromebook laptops for high school students, and the plan was to get devices out to middle school kids this fall. Where is that timeline now?

Rydstrom: We are on the same timetable as before, the grades 6-8 students will receive their Chromebooks in the fall as planned. We actually have those devices right now. … We put in our order for Chromebooks for the middle school before the closures happened, and that was very beneficial for us to already have that technology plan.

Q: There’s a plan to be 2:1 with devices at the elementary schools by fall 2021. How are those students learning now?

Rydstrom: At the elementary level, we have the same expectations. Teachers are reaching out weekly to families. For example, I have a preschooler, and they’ve set up Zoom meetings where they can talk through that with homework.

The way we have set up the elementary schools, since they don’t actually have devices from PK-8, is the learning packets that we are sending home via the food distribution sites and mailings are the same things that are posted online — as not to drive the equity gap and access gap.

The elementary is very much still paper and pencil. Teachers are able to supplement that work. We’re distributing about 5,400 packets through the grab-and-go sites, and we mail about 3,000 home. I would venture to guess that’s the primary way that parents and students are accessing their curriculum right now.

Comments: (319) 398-8330; molly.duffy@thegazette.com

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Our most important Coronavirus coverage is free to the public.

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