With approximately 5,000 students attending Madison County School System’s seven schools, about one-fifth of the student population does not have adequate internet access at home. When schools closed and students shifted to online learning in March, these students ran the risk of not getting the same level of instruction as their peers with reliable internet access.
“We are a predominantly agricultural district that still has a lot of rural areas with limited or no internet access, and this has been a barrier, a challenge, for many of our students,” says Madison Schools Superintendent Michael Williams. “Although we had been cognizant for some time of the homework gap, or digital divide, the gap was amplified by our sudden switch to digital learning as our only option.”
A $4,000 grant from the Jackson EMC Foundation enabled Madison Schools to purchase four Kajeet SmartBus Wi-Fi systems, which were installed in four school buses. With a range of 100 yards, the length of a football field, the mobile hotspot allows students within range to access the internet. In the spring, buses were driven to neighborhoods that lacked connectivity and parked from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.
“Students within 100 yards of the bus would have internet,” says Williams. “Getting the mobile hotspots to where students live allowed them to either stay at home or walk nearby to complete their schoolwork, and families outside the 100-yard range could drive their kids to the bus and the kids could sit in the car to do schoolwork.”
Williams says the school system would reevaluate mobile access locations as necessary in case distance learning carries over to the 2020-21 school term—when all students are issued a Chromebook.
“Smartphones are prevalent, but there’s a limited amount of schoolwork you can do on a smartphone,” says Williams. “With Chromebooks, students need internet capability, and with the mobile hotspots that we have now, we’re able to provide that to students who otherwise would not have the internet access they need for schoolwork.”
Bringing Wi-Fi into neighborhoods without it came sooner than he might have expected, according to Williams.
“Eventually we would have done this anyway, but COVID-19 created urgency and the need for a rapid response to provide this for our students, and now we’re set up to do it in the future,” he says. “Parents are very appreciative of the ability to connect to the internet, and we are very appreciative of the Jackson EMC Foundation for their generosity and for shortening their application process and increasing the urgency to get this approved. Having the Jackson EMC Foundation contribute to the success of our students is just so impactful.”