The COVID-19 pandemic has prompted the Vigo County School Corp. to expedite its technology plan in ways that will benefit not only students and teachers, but the community as well.
• It has purchased Chromebooks for all students in Grades 3-12. Devices for grades K-2 are planned for the next stage of the technology roll-out.
• Teachers have undergone training in use of Chromebooks and Canvas, the district’s new learning management system. Canvas is described as a “digital storage house” for teachers to organize their lessons and to give students quizzes, assignments, pictures, video and more.
• The district has been awarded a nearly $1.4 million grant aimed at improving connectivity in rural and low-income areas with no or low-speed internet access.
“I think these devices and the way we use not just the hardware, but also the software, is really going to have a ripple effect on our children and our community,” said Bill Riley, VCSC director of communications.
Originally, under the district’s strategic plan approved early this year, no student was going to have Chromebooks until next year, and the rollout was to continue through 2023. COVID-19 put technology even higher on the priority list.
“We want to make sure these tools are in students’ hands,” Riley said as the Chromebook laptops were distributed to high school student in late August. “We don’t want to go to remote learning, but these will be great tools if we have to.”
In total, the district has purchased 11,060 Chromebooks for grades 3-12 at a cost of about $4 million funded through federal CARES Act dollars [$1.9 million] and a general obligation bond [$2.1 million].
All VCSC teachers received their Chromebooks last school year and they have been training over spring and summer; In May, all teachers participated in six hours of required Chromebook training.
The arrival of the laptops, which can be used at home and at school, opens new possibilities for student learning.
The district will be able to equip students with new computing skills, and “it will allow our teachers to be more creative in how they deliver education,” Riley said.
Originally, the district’s technology integration plan was going to be rolled out over a four-year period through summer of 2023, said Karen Goeller, deputy superintendent.
But with the expedited rollout, teachers have done their part to prepare.
“We’ve had a lot of teacher professional development over the summer,” she said. Attendance at VCSC workshops involved about 4,100 participants, with many teachers attending multiple sessions.
Teachers have trained on Chromebooks, Canvas and GSuite [various tools and software that can be used].
For example, teachers are learning how to use Canvas to put students in small groups for various online learning activities, and they’re also learning how to use it for collaborative activities, in which each student contributes, such as for a newsletter.
Chromebooks give teachers more choices in how they deliver instruction, she said.
According to Riley, “We’ve been able to accelerate not just the hardware, but the way we deliver education through technology.”
The district also has benefited from a career ladders grant that has one teacher per building leading professional development for technology integration. It also received a digital learning grant that focuses on innovative teaching and engaging classrooms, Goeller said.
In the past, children have gone to the computer lab maybe once a week. With Chromebooks, the goal is to integrate digital resources as part of students’ daily classroom activities, Goeller said.
Grant to strengthen community connectivity
In another major development, the district was awarded a nearly $1.4 million grant aimed at improving internet connectivity in rural and low-income areas with no or low-speed internet access.
The improved connectivity will benefit not only schools, but the community as well, Riley said. While planning is still underway, funds will be used to provide community hotspots, or wifi internet access points, in identified areas.
The funding is through the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund (GEER) and will be used to improve internet connectivity across the district and community. The fund was established with federal CARES Act dollars.
The grant calls for hotspots to be placed in locations where 45% of households have an income of less than $30,000 per year or the area has low residential speed capabilities.
While it will benefit students doing remote learning, “It’s not just for remote learning,” Riley said last month. “Access to the internet is going to be vital for the growth of our students and our community. Think about all the different things you need the internet to do — from paying a bill to getting information.”
The hotspots could potentially be located at churches, community centers or other organizations.
Currently, VCSC school parking lots can be used for WiFi access after school hours. But with the new access points, the district would like to move beyond parking lots and provide access to people’s homes.
The hope is that students would be able to use their Chromebooks at home and be on the VCSC WiFi channel.
Several community partners assisted VCSC with the grant, including Joink, RJL Solutions, the county’s four institutions of higher education, the city of Terre Haute, the Terre Haute Chamber of Commerce, Terre Haute Children’s Museum, Vigo County Commissioners and churches.
The improved internet connectivity “comes at a critical time for Vigo County and will pair well with our recently purchased Chromebooks for Vigo County students,” Rob Haworth, VCSC superintendent, said in a statement.
“Having a device in the hands of all of our students is a critical step to improving not just our remote learning capabilities, but will support learning while school is in session. It’s crucial that these devices are paired with internet access, and we’re thankful for this grant from the state.”
Mobile WiFi units on buses
In another, separate effort to increase internet access, the Vigo County Education Foundation has provided funding to equip nine VCSC school buses with SmartBus mobile WiFi units. The buses equipped with WiFi would be used in the event the entire district must use remote learning.
Part of the funds, $5,000, came from the Wabash Valley COVID-19 Relief Fund, distributed by United Way of the Wabash Valley and the Wabash Valley Community Foundation.
Sue Loughlin can be reached at 812-231-4235 or at firstname.lastname@example.org Follow Sue on Twitter @TribStarSue.