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As Anchorage classrooms shift to online learning, many families still need computers and Wi-Fi

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Vivi Armstrong, 11, studies Spanish using the Duolingo app on her phone at home on Friday, April 10, 2020. Armstrong is a fifth grader at Winterberry Charter School. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

For a week and a half, Sue Armstrong’s daughter was doing her online schoolwork with just a smartphone, squinting down at its small screen and scrolling through lessons.

“I’m worried about her eyeballs,” Armstrong said Wednesday.

Armstrong’s three kids — in the second, fifth and eighth grades — are all participating in at-home online education with the Anchorage School District’s Winterberry Charter School. For the family of five, vying for Wi-Fi bandwidth and computer time with a limited number of devices in the home was becoming a challenge.

On Thursday, the school principal delivered a Chromebook laptop to Armstrong’s doorstep.

Roey Armstrong, 14, uses Google Classroom on her family's laptop at home on Friday, April 10, 2020. Armstrong is a eighth grader at Winterberry Charter School. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

But despite a massive effort by the school district to shift to distance learning in a matter of weeks, thousands of Anchorage parents are still waiting. Some families don’t have Wi-Fi. And even for families with internet access, with both parents and children now working from home, the increased demand on Wi-Fi bandwidth and family devices is becoming a challenge.

The Anchorage School District launched districtwide distance learning last week after state officials shuttered school buildings in March in an effort to slow the spread of the new coronavirus. School buildings across the state will remain closed for the rest of the school year, Gov. Mike Dunleavy announced Thursday.

Now, students are using devices to log in to Zoom video conference meetings with teachers, access lessons on YouTube and complete assignments on the district’s platforms like Seesaw, Apex and Canvas.

The district is making a coordinated effort to get Anchorage students the devices they need to use those resources. Since starting online schooling, the district has lent out 3,370 of its Chromebooks, according to Lisa Miller, district spokeswoman.

Anchorage teachers and staff surveyed as many students as possible in March to pinpoint their needs, said the district’s senior director of elementary education Daniel Barker.

The district initially surveyed about 41,000 families of its more than 46,000 students, according to a districtwide email from Superintendent Deena Bishop. About 4% of families surveyed did not have any Wi-Fi at home — that’s about 1,640 in the district. The district found a total of 5% didn’t have any devices.

Some families that still need the tools to access distance education worry that the youngest students are getting left behind.

“They kind of left the elementary kids in the dust,” said Candy Binkley, a mother whose 10-year-old daughter Auroura attends Taku Elementary School.

Auroura Anderson, 10, poses with her mom Candy Binkley on Friday, April 10, 2020. Anderson is a fourth grader at Taku Elementary. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

Binkley is still waiting to hear whether Auroura will get a laptop.

“Our biggest problem is making sure we got enough food in the house and paying all of our bills so we have a roof over our heads when all this is done and over with,” Binkley said. “The last thing I think we should have to be worrying about is her schooling.”

The district prioritized getting laptops and Wi-Fi hotspots to the students nearest school completion — high schoolers — and is working its way down through the grades, Barker said. High school students received 1,428 laptops and 772 hotspots last week, according to district spokeswoman Lisa Miller. This week, middle school students received 1,785 laptops from the district but no hotspots.

The district estimates that 6,500 elementary students need laptops, according to Mike Fleckenstein, chief information officer with IT. As of Thursday, just 157 received Chromebooks, according to Miller.

But not every student who needs a device will get one.

“We're able to start with a digital platform that we know there's a portion of our community that just won't have access to at all,” Barker said.

Online access can pose risks for young kids and often requires constant parent monitoring, he said. Because the access to distance education isn’t equitable, all of the distance learning material for elementary and middle school is supplementary, Barker said. Students may slip behind, but elementary students take tests each August when school begins so that teachers can tailor lessons to the students’ needs.

Instead of accessing online activities and lessons, many elementary students will have to rely on paper learning packets delivered in the mail with the same curriculum material for now, Barker said.

Binkley is also still waiting to get a paper packet in the mail. And she’s getting frustrated. She has been gathering crossword puzzles and games to keep Auroura’s mind occupied. Binkley buys her books, but says that is getting expensive, too. Auroura loves math and science and can devour a book in just a few days, Binkley said.

Auroura has been able to access twice-weekly Zoom meetings with her teacher from Binkley’s cellphone.

“It’s hard trying to keep her busy and occupied with things that will challenge her mind,” Binkley said. “She’s a pretty hyper kid.”

Barker said getting learning materials and laptops to families is still a moving target for the district. The tallies on who-needs-what change daily.

And getting devices like laptops and Wi-Fi hot spots to kids is no easy task in the middle of a pandemic, said Jack Johnson, the a director of IT security for the district.

“We know that there are some families that are really between a rock and a hard place,” Johnson said. “And it’s definitely not that they aren’t equally important. The whole community is in triage mode right now.”

Joe Zawodny, director of secondary education, said that families went directly to the schools to pick up devices. But many families could not make it to the pick-up spots. So staff with the district called those families and brought devices directly to their doors, often in school buses.

In March, the district spent $187,360 on 1,000 hotspots, according to a memorandum to the school board. So far, those hotspots have only been distributed to high school students and the rest are in reserve, Barker said.

The district is trying to purchase 1,000 more but they aren’t yet available — there is an international shortage from the sudden demand increase during the coronavirus pandemic, Zawodny said.

Meanwhile, the district has negotiated with local internet companies, Barker said. Alaska Communications is offering free Wi-Fi for anyone who has a student or is a district employee and GCI is offering free Wi-Fi upgrades.

“We have joked more than once that we are rebuilding the plane while it’s still in the air,” Johnson said. “We’re trying to adapt as fast as we can.”

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