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East County Wednesday, Mar. 25, 2020 3 months ago

E-learning access concerns East County families

The School District of Manatee County is working to ensure all students have access.
by: Liz Ramos Staff Writer

A parent of four children, River Place’s Nicole Hamer has three iPads and a home computer.

It might not be enough. 

Her children, first graders Trey and Trevor, fifth grader Austin and seventh grader Aiden, begin e-learning with the School District of Manatee County on March 30, so they can learn from home during the coronavirus threat. 

“The iPads we have are original iPads, so they’re all old,” Hamer said. “With kids destroying things, there’s been no reason to upgrade devices. I don’t know how it’s going to work. Because the iPads are so old, I don’t know if they’re compatible with new programs.”

If Schoology cannot be used on the iPads due to their age, Hamer’s four sons will have to share the home computer if they are unable to get other devices. Schoology is the district’s online learning management program that will be used during e-learning.

E-learning for the School District of Manatee County’s 49,783 students will continue until schools reopen April 15, if on-campus attendance isn’t suspended for longer.

“Our district is in position to successfully open with this approach March 30,” said Cynthia Saunders, the district superintendent. “We do feel we’re in a position for our e-learning platform to be there, but it’s not just us. It’s a national situation, and I do believe Manatee County is in a better spot than many.”

Scott Hansen, chief technology officer for the district, said the district has 12,000 Chromebooks for students who don’t have access to technology for e-learning. If more than 12,000 devices are needed, the district has 15,000 Windows 10 devices that could be used. 

Alicia Chalmers has had a taste of what it will be like because her son Colt, a sixth grader at The Out-of-Door Academy, has been taking e-learning classes since March 18. Chalmers and her husband, Jim, have been working at home since social distancing began.

Their son Camden, a third grader at Braden River Elementary, begins e-learning March 30 with the other School District of Manatee County students.

“It’s a new normal we’re adjusting to,” Chalmers said.

Chalmers’ concern is when Camden starts e-learning March 30. The family has an iPad Colt uses for classes but does not have “another really reliable home computer” for Camden.

The district will provide one device per residence. The first day of distribution of devices is March 27. Schools will contact families for available pick-up times.

Hansen said the e-learning platform allows 24/7 access for students, and the requirements to complete assignments are flexible, so families can have multiple students using the same device to complete their work.

Colt Chalmers, a sixth grader at Out-of-Door Academy, works on math problems. The Chalmers are in need of a fourth device so Colt Chalmers and his brother, Camden, can do assignments online at the same time. Courtesy photo.

If families have computers, laptops, tablets or even smartphones, students will be able to conduct their e-learning on those devices.

“Our platform is device agnostic and allows for our students to leverage various devices to complete their assignments based on their level of comfort using a device of varying screen sizes,” Hansen said. “The screen size may provide a different experience but not impact their ability to complete an assignment.”

The district is working with families without internet to contact Spectrum for free internet if they live in Spectrum’s coverage area.

For those not in Spectrum’s coverage area, the district will have 400 hot spots to give to students, but the hot spots won’t be available until at least April 3, which is five days after e-learning has begun. Saunders said the district will work with those families to provide alternate learning options.

Hot spots will be distributed based on “need and priority determined by the schools and the district,” Hansen said.

Schools in the Lakewood Ranch area have been asking families to call the school or fill out a survey if they are in need of a device or hot spot.

“Our goal is to end our school year on our existing calendar year,” Saunders said. “We know if we pick up and complete our teaching and learning beginning the 30th of March, we will meet the required number of minutes set by the Department of Education, and we will be able to finish this year as strong as possible.”

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