Alachua County School District Scrambles To Provide Digital Assistance

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The Alachua County Public School District has given out electronic devices and hotspots to families as their children return to school.

So far, the district has met the majority of these families’ connectivity needs, but it is unable to provide for everyone.

Jackie Johnson, director of the Alachua County Public School District, said the district has provided 1,000 hotspots as of Monday and more than 2,300 electronic devices. Those numbers might at first seem inadequate for a district with nearly 26,000 students enrolled this year, but about half of them are attending brick-and-mortar classes.

Johnson said the district originally based the number of hotspots ordered on the 400 students whose families said they needed one a few months ago. That number increased as more families became aware that they had the option of receiving them.

Megan Hendricks, vice president and legislative chair of the Alachua County Council of PTAs, explained how some families are more familiar with technology than others, and the ones that aren’t may be struggling with the online format.

She’s worried about these and other problems leading to a possible downfall for public education.

“I just really hope that there’s a way to work out the kinks,” she said. “If people end up leaving public school altogether because of this, then none of us benefit … I’ve been working on legislative advocacy for almost a decade now at the state level, and I’m watching the slow destruction of public education in favor of privatization, vouchers, things like that. I am worried that this particular case may inadvertently contribute to that, and people may not even know it,” Hendricks said.

Hendricks said she has heard from parents and students that HyFlex classes — in which a teacher’s attention is divided between the students online and the ones in the classroom — have been challenging.

“Unfortunately, neither set of kids seems to be getting the instruction or the attention that they need,” she said. “That seems to be the most critical issue we have right now.”

However, she expressed that she is glad that online instruction is still an option. The PTA created a survey that will be sent out to teachers and parents to assess their thoughts on the first two weeks back to school, Hendricks said.

Mary Benedict, president of the Alachua County Council of PTAs, said the district is currently working on meeting the needs of an approximate 30 or so additional families that have asked for assistance. It’s running a survey through Sept. 20 that parents can fill out to assist.

The district currently has enough computers, Johnson said, to serve the approximately 12,600 taking in-person classes. Still, if coronavirus conditions worsen and more than one school must close, more students would need devices.

This data is representative of the Alachua County Public School District’s enrollment for the beginning of the 2020-21 school year, although a district spokesperson said the totals fluctuate daily. (Daniella Sevares/WUFT News)

The district is adopting a proactive approach for the fall semester.

“We have to be looking ahead, and that’s why we are so grateful to the Alachua County Commission, which has offered some of its CARES Act (federal) funding to help us with this issue,” she said.

As she anticipated, Johnson said that there have been some obstacles to beginning the school year. Some families were unable or did not know how to sign in to the district’s Digital Academy platform, she said. The district’s information technology department has been assisting families that have had sign-in issues.

Firewall and broadband capacity are more limited at this time, and Johnson said that they are looking for stronger firewall options. The district is also working with Cox Communications to provide families with hotspots.

“This is brand new territory for everyone,” Johnson said, “and it’s all hands on deck right now to try to make it work.”

About Daniella Sevares

Daniella is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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