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With classes suspended due to COVID-19, schools in Winnipeg School Division conducted a needs survey with families to determine how many are without a computer or internet access at home.
"We've had responses from 2,500 families that would require a device and of those 2,500 families, about 40 per cent would require internet at home," said Tony Marchione, WSD's acting director of information technology.
"It's quite a hurdle to overcome."
The first hurdle – putting devices in student's hands – is manageable. Marchione said WSD has approximately 5,000 Chromebooks in its inventory, as well as a limited number of iPads.
"We have devices we can send home," Marchione said. "We do want to look at software options to ensure that there are safeguards in place on the devices. When students are working online, there would be safeguards in place, filters, so they are not viewing inappropriate stuff."
That said, the second hurdle is quite a bit higher. Loaning out Chromebooks is one thing, but for student's without internet access, an offline laptop isn't of much use.
"We're exploring a number of options right now and looking at building partnerships with different internet providers to come up with a solution for internet connectivity," Marchione said.
"We're just starting those discussions now. At first it seemed like there wasn't a lot of possibility of forming those partnerships, but in the last few days the internet providers have been reaching out and saying there are some options we can look at. We're looking at what is possible from these internet providers and what we can do to bridge that connectivity gap."
Marchione said if the division is able to work out a deal to get Wi-Fi into homes, the next step is providing technical support to families.
"If we're sending division devices home, students and parents are going to have questions and we want to have technical support available for them," Marchione said. "They could call and say 'We have a Chromebook and it's not connecting to the internet. Can you help us?' We want to have that in place too."
Of course, students without computers or the Internet have been provided physical home learning packages, and that will continue.
"There isn't just one way of delivering content, there has to be a balance," Marchione said. "By having a protocol in place, a plan to send technology home to students who don't have access to technology, that will help them bridge some of that gap."
"Our plan is just to be as strategic and organized as we can and to meet the needs of our families and we're working toward that."