The search for teaching tools

Faced with the challenge of continuing instruction while students had no place to go during the COVID-19 Crisis, Madera Unified administrators gave Internet access and computers first priority. If teachers were going to teach their students without being in their presence, it would have to be done via the Internet, using computers.

Conceding that school work for K-1 classes could be prepared in packets and picked up by parents, the bulk of distance learning for grades 2-12 would take place on internet connections between the teachers and students. This, of course, meant that every household would have to have internet service, and that is where the district turned first. It had to know how many households had access to the Internet?

Internet access

Given the fact that several Internet providers were offering free internet access (for two months) to students who were eligible, the district launched a vigorous effort to find out which students had Internet access and those that did not.

The district had taken a survey in May of 2019, which showed that most of the students with Internet access lived east of Hwy 99. The majority of students without Internet service lived west of Hwy. 99 and were concentrated at Dixieland (30 percent), Eastin Arcola (45 percent), and La Vina (67 percent).

Not satisfied with a year-old survey, Babatunde Ilori, head of the accountability and communications department, directed his staff to bring the numbers up to date. It wasn’t easy. The first round of automated phone calls yielded a 10 percent response rate. A second round raised that to 20 percent. Not satisfied but undaunted, Ilori’s crew, which included just about every secretary and administrative assistant he could muster, made personal phone calls.

The survey conundrum was finally solved through the use of a special data retrieval system developed by Ilori. This highly sophisticated tool told which students had internet access and which ones did not. He was also able to tell which students lived in an area that would allow them to access the free Internet service being offered by several providers. Further, Ilori’s system allowed him to ascertain which students would need a hotspot (a device that connects computers to the internet).

Ilori and his colleagues soon had the information they needed. Seventy-eight percent of the students had Internet service in their homes. Fifteen percent lived in an area where the free Internet access would work, and six percent would require a hotspot.

At present, the district can identify which families have Internet access in 99 percent of its households.

According to Ilori, 9,453 Madera Unified households presently have Internet access. The 15 percent who didn’t have Internet service but lived in an area where they could if they took advantage of the offer of free or reduced charges for the Internet remained a thorn in the district’s side, so David Hernandez went to work.

Hernandez, the district’s Director of Community Service and Parent Resource Centers, took advantage of his connections with the Fresno State Call Center and reached out to Madera Unified families, informing them of the free and reduced Internet offer. As of April 21, 420 Madera Unified families had contacted Fresno State about the Internet offer. As a result, 69 families have been connected to the program and 80 families are pending. According to Hernandez, Madera Unified was the first district to turn to the Fresno State Call Center for help in making parents aware that they could get Internet service at a highly reduced cost and in some cases, free.

Computers

While the district was making sure that Madera’s students had Internet access in their homes, the district’s Director of Information Technology, Joseph Halford was addressing the hotspot and computer problem.

Some students, because of the location of their homes, could not get online even if they had free Internet access. They needed a hotspot. The problem was, according to Ilori, that the devices were as scarce as toilet paper during this pandemic. Halford echoed Ilori’s assessment, citing a national shortage.

Somehow, however, they were able to secure 1,000 hotspots from AT&T, which also helped configure the devices to Madera Unified’s specifications. By April 20, Halford was able to report that 709 hotspots had been deployed to school sites for distribution.

Next, Halford turned to the need for computers to facilitate distance learning. A Chromebook Take Home Program was developed. In four weeks, beginning on March 13, the overwhelming task of checking, sanitizing, inventorying, and assigning these classroom computers was complete. With the help of 11 tech support employees and 177 volunteers, on April 14, distribution to students began.

The deployment of the chromebooks was as taxing as any part of the process. From April 14 to April 17 technology specialist were at every school assisting the principals in communicating with the parents, setting up appointments for walk-up and drive thru pickups, enforcing the social distancing requirements and coordinating the volunteers.

By April 17, 11,000 chromebooks had been deployed, and four days later that number was over 12,000. The district’s distance learning program was up and running.