Officials in the largely rural Riverside School District north of Spokane are exploring a wide variety of options to get high speed internet access for their students, including recruiting parent volunteers to staff community sites where students could go to complete their online schoolwork.
“It’s just one strategy of many,” said Riverside Superintendent Ken Russell. “It’s not final. We’re still working on it.”
Several churches and other locations, including the Veterans of Foreign Wars post in Elk, have called the school district to offer their buildings and internet access to small groups of students. Russell said the district is still figuring out if such sites will be necessary.
“We’re using our school district first,” he said. “You can’t just have a walk-in environment. It has to be scheduled.”
Parents interested in volunteering to be an internet site supervisor can send an email to email@example.com. A background check is required.
Russell said an estimated 30% of the district’s students don’t have internet access at home, and it’s not necessarily because of affordability; the access just doesn’t exist in some areas.
“There are lots of spots in our district that don’t have reliable internet access,” he said.
Someone donated 50 internet hot spots to the district in the spring and since then the district has purchased 150 more. But even the hot spots don’t always work, either because of lack of coverage or lack of bandwidth necessary for live video or Zoom meetings.
“Some of them worked well for some of the tasks we wanted students to do,” Russell said.
People can connect to school Wi-Fi from the parking lots, and Russell said the district is working with two mobile home parks in Riverside to install Wi-Fi for students to use. Paper homework packets will be distributed when required, and thumb drives are also being used.
The district recently received a $5,000 grant from Innovia to help improve internet access for students.
Russell said he’s asked Spokane County for CARES Act money for the same purpose.
“We need better internet in northern Spokane County,” he said. “We’re doing the best we can, but we need a systemic approach that includes the county and the state.”
When Russell said the district is doing everything it can to improve internet access, that includes tagging SpaceX CEO Elon Musk in several tweets asking the businessman to bring his satellite broadband internet StarLink to the district.
A recent tweet posted Aug. 13 reads “Remote learning due to COVID is tough without the internet. Let our rural WA state students help you test StarLink, @elonmusk!”
When Riverside students went back to school Tuesday, it was with a mix of in-person sessions and online learning. At the elementary school level, students with last names in the first half of the alphabet attend school on Monday and Tuesday, while the rest attend on Thursday and Friday. Wednesdays are for students with special needs and those who don’t have internet access at home.
Students in middle and high school are divided into four groups who each attend classes in person one day a week. As in the elementary schools, Wednesday is reserved for those with special needs or lack of internet access.
“We call it stage two, which is a slow rollout,” Russell said. “Our hope, if we can avoid COVID, is to go to stage three.”
Stage three has elementary students in the classroom every day and older students in class two days a week. In all stages, students have the option to attend school online only if they choose, Russell said. It has proven to be a popular option with about 20% of all students choosing online only.
The district has purchased an online curriculum called Edgenuity, which teachers can customize.
The goal was to replace the hodgepodge of websites teachers were using in the spring that required students to keep track of multiple passwords.
“It was too overwhelming,” he said.
Russell is excited to see students in person again and hopes it can continue.
“The goal is to have as many of the 180 days in person as possible,” he said. “It’s not just about the beginning, it’s about the whole school year.”