Elementary and secondary school districts across Illinois are moving toward online or e-learning while students remain at home in an effort to contain the coronavirus.
One district in southern Illinois has taken a unique approach to ensure every student has access to the internet.
Belleville Township High School District 201, located outside St. Louis, is deploying four school buses equipped with WiFi to serve as Wi-Fi hotspots throughout the community. Drivers park the buses next to seven different parks scattered throughout the community and Belleville’s downtown YMCA, depending on the day of the week, between 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. every Monday through Friday.
“People can just pull up, come up and download the information they need for the day and then go,” said BTHS District 201 Assistant Superintendent Brian Mentzer.
Mentzer said a member of the district’s IT department came up with the idea as educators in the district discussed how they’d transition to an online learning model.
“And everybody’s heads nodded like, yeah, that’s a great idea,” he said.
Never thought the WiFi enabled buses would be deployed for this! #ilschoolsstepup https://t.co/xfUMI4LyGl
— Melissa Taylor (@melissat1130) March 17, 2020
The district includes two high schools that collectively serve about 4,800 students. Mentzer said the vast majority of students in the district reported having access to the internet at home. But he said it was important those who didn’t were still able to receive digital educational materials.
“This is available for all our feeder school districts, all of our elementary kids, you know there could be 13,000 kids,” Mentzer said. “They’re there to provide a resource for families and kids.”
Like many school districts, Mentzer said District 201 had to move quickly to transition to e-learning. He said school officials have provided all students who lack personal devices at home with a Chromebook they can use during the mandated school closure.
“However we realized that some of our students may have devices but they prefer to work on a Chromebook during the time they’re off. And we’ve allowed them obviously to pick up Chromebooks as well,” Mentzer said.
He estimated that the district has loaned students between 500 and 600 Chromebooks to use while schools are closed.
The Illinois State Board of Education has instructed districts that the mandated closure does not count toward days of instruction, and will not need to be made up at the end of the school year. The guidance indicates that schools don’t need to teach students during this period, but offering something in the form educational activities is recommended.
Mentzer said it was important for his district to provide e-learning for students because it’s unclear how long the closure will last. Gov. J.B. Pritzker has ordered school remain closed at least through March 30.
Mentzer said each online lesson begins with a check-in.
“So our students will hopefully hear this seven times a day, (it) starts with: how are you doing? Is there anything you need? Are you healthy? Do you need food? Those are the questions our lessons, our communications are beginning with, because we understand that’s also a priority.”