CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (KCRG) – The Cedar Rapids Community School District is in a race against the clock, trying to get all of its approximately 16,000 students connected to the internet before the first day of school next Monday.
The school district estimated about 2,000 of its students did not have internet access at home before the Aug. 10 derecho, but they now believe that number has increased since the storm as providers continue to make repairs, according to CRCSD Executive Director of Digital Literacy Craig Barnum.
“I’ve been in education 27 years, and this is the most difficult challenge that I’ve ever faced, the hardest I’ve ever worked,” Barnum said.
Among the group of families whose internet has recently gone away is the Hudson family of northwest Cedar Rapids, whose children will be attending Roosevelt Middle School and Harrison Elementary School this year.
They decided to change internet providers to ImOn over the summer and had an appointment scheduled to install the new service on Aug. 11, the day after the derecho.
That appointment was canceled, and Jamie Hudson said ImOn told her husband that a service person wouldn’t be able to complete the installation until mid- to late October.
Both ImOn and Mediacom told TV9 that they’re working as quickly as possible to make repairs, especially with schools started around eastern Iowa.
But not having internet access at home will become an even bigger problem for the Hudson family next Monday, with four children, from kindergarten through sixth grade, starting virtual learning in Cedar Rapids schools.
“We have one child with asthma, another child with a heart condition, and then our second grader actually has speech problems, so talking behind a mask is really frustrating for her,” Hudson said.
Barnum mentioned three ways the district is working to connect families with internet access for the school year.
“We want every family to be able to start and have a good experience on Monday,” he said. “However, I think we have to acknowledge the fact that this is a school year like none other that we’ve ever faced.”
The first is through “internet hubs,” seven locations around Cedar Rapids supervised by CRCSD staff, where students can work from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., use free Wi-Fi, and get help with schoolwork.
Those locations are: Jane Boyd (943 14th Avenue SE), Paul Engel Center (1600 4th Ave SE), Four Oaks (1924 D Street SW and 2100 1st Avenue NE), First Lutheran Church (1000 3rd Ave SE), Cedar Rapids Public Library’s downtown branch (450 5th Ave SE), and the Salvation Army Community Center (1000 C Ave NW).
However, Barnum noted this measure — while available to all district students — was especially created to help students who selected in-person learning at Jefferson High School, Washington High School, Kennedy High School, Franklin Middle School, McKinley Middle School, and Taft Middle School, where derecho damage is keeping buildings closed for part of the school year. Those students will be learning remotely in the interim.
But with four school-aged children, plus an infant, Hudson said it would be difficult for someone in her situation to bring her children to another location to use the Wi-Fi.
“It’s not like I can load them up and take them somewhere,” she said, adding that her husband works fulltime. “I have no choice but to stay home and take care of them, like it’s another typical day of summer because I don’t have any other options.”
The second option Barnum highlighted is through a partnership with ImOn through the company’s CARES funding. Families who qualify for free and reduced lunches and currently don’t have access to the internet will be able to receive free internet service for 10 months.
“That should take into account upwards of about 1,500 households in the district, it potentially could, which is roughly around, potentially, 2,500, 3,000 kids,” Barnum said.
While the Hudsons qualify for and have signed up for that service, to their knowledge, they still won’t be able to get it installed for at least a month.
That leaves them with the third option: CRCSD is loaning about 2,400 hotspots to get students connected to the internet at home. Priority for those is going to the families who chose all-online learning for this year, like the Hudsons, according to Barnum.
“We’re trying to reach out to those families and contact them and make sure they’ve got what they need to get started,” Barnum said. “Those calls started actually about a week-and-a-half ago, but it does take time to reach people, and so we’re still working on it.”
While Hudson said she had heard about potentially getting a hotspot for one of her students, she hadn’t heard about availability for the others.
If they don’t have internet by Monday, she said her kids will have to miss the first day of school — and every day until they get connected.
“I don’t want them to fall further behind, but my hands are pretty tied. I don’t have a lot of options,” Husdon said.
Her kids are excited about going back, with her oldest, Khloe, beginning her first year of middle school, and her younger students, Bailee, Whitley, and Jase, eagerly showing off their new school supplies at home Tuesday.
If they have to miss school, Hudson doesn’t want her kids to feel like she’s let them down.
“It’s like, ‘Well, she’s Mom. She can make it work.’ In this situation, not so much,” she said.
“I feel like there’s no solution — my hands are tied, and I’m absolutely going to fail come Monday morning.”
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