PITTSFIELD, Mass. — School administrators have offered households remote learning support but see more challenges on the horizon.
Superintendent Jason McCandless told the School Committee on Wednesday that although they have provided 3,000 students with school-owned laptops there are still many families without an internet connection.
"We need to find a way to cross that digital bridge that has some students connected and with equipment and other students isolated," he said.
He said if the city were to become an internet provider that would solve the issue because students could be provided the internet like any other utility. Pittsfield last year got a $75,000 grant to study would it take to become an internet service provider but is not yet ready to take that step.
McCandless said the school district is currently working with several groups to find a way to bridge this divide but until then is relying on workbooks as a stopgap measure.
He noted that Spectrum is providing free internet for 60 days to students but will not provide that to households that owe the company money.
"There are some pretty powerful folks on board trying to get them to waive this because of the emergency situation," he said.
School Committee member Dennis Powell said he is working with community partners to help find funding for households who may owe Spectrum money and cannot utilize the free program.
McCandless said the district will continue to strengthen the Chromebook fleet and better remote-learning practices because it is unsure how long students will have to depend on remote learning.
"We really understand what a challenge this is for families trying to juggle multiple scenarios right now," he said. "We understand that everyone is doing their best and we have some expectations for this period of remote learning but people should not be too hard on themselves."
He said teachers will find ways to "fill in the gaps" once they return to school.
"This should not be the straw that breaks the collective family's back right now," he said. "There are a lot of very important things going on in life right now ... we all understand this."
He said students will be able to hang onto the Chromebooks over the summer and into the fall. Even if they are able to return to school in the fall, there is the real possibility that a resurgence of the novel coronavirus pandemic could cause the schools to close their doors again.
Even if this is not the case, McCandless said they want to be better prepared if they have to rely on remote learning again.
McCandless said the plan is to continue to support parents who are now essentially acting as teachers and there will be a series of remote learning workshops for parents May 19 at 4 and May 21 at 7.
"We fully recognize that this is such a new situation for all of us. All of our teachers are working to serve but I am not sure that the challenge is any greater than it is for our parents," he said.
He said the remote workshops will be focused on Clever, Google Classroom, and Gmail.
"We hope that this helps families get the tools to reduce the stress levels and feel a little bit better about their ability to support their children," he said.
He said a notice was sent out to all guardians and folks can register online; 250 people have already signed up.
McCandless said the plan is to utilize the Panorama program to track students who they have not been able to contact.
"It would be a one-stop-shop to note if they have been in contact with a student so they can share that information with agencies that share our concern," he said.
He said they have yet to be able to contact all students during the pandemic.
"We want to make sure that the safety net has no gaps and the families and students don’t get lost in any of those gaps," he said. "This is vital for that service."
The program can also be sued to track the thousands of Chromebooks that have lent out to students.
McCandless did not have any new information for graduation but noted lawn signs have been sent out to seniors.
"Our seniors gave up an awful lot this year through zero fault of their own and our hearts are with them and with their families," he said. "I thank everyone who is helping us celebrate this very special group of students. They were born during the era of 9/11 and they are graduating during a pandemic. I think they are marked by fate for greatness."
He also extended this to athletes who have lost their spring season.
"The season has been lost and that is heartbreaking but the real power that is in high school athletics are the friends that you make, the character you build, and the leadership skills that you build," he said.
The School Committee accepted a resolution in support of increased federal support and stimulus funding for public k-12 education.
Chairwoman Katherine Yon said this aligns with the federal HEROES Act, a $3 trillion COVID-19 relief bill.
"I think it is very apropos that we have this resolution on the agenda because this act is now working its way through the [Congress]," Yon said. "Hopefully it will make it through the House and then go on to the Senate and it does call for $90 billion extra in funding for education."
She said in the future they may consider a second resolution asking the state to release the Students Opportunity Act Funding.
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