It turns out that buying portable internet hotspots for remote learning was like buying surgical masks during the early days of the coronavirus pandemic … lots of demand searching for limited supply.

At tonight’s school board meeting for Evanston/Skokie District 65, the explanation was this: “There are demands out there. Families say we need additional hot spots.”

District 65 has distributed more than 7,000 computers to students, who are taking all of their classes online, at home, due to COVID-19. But without internet access, having a computer for school is worthless. So the district has also provided hot spots to help bridge the digital divide.

Many low-income families do not have adequate access to the internet, or perhaps no access at all. But when school is taught remotely, as District 65 is doing, internet access is absolutely necessary.

Raphael Obafemi, the district’s chief financial and operations officer, told the board that 65 families have requested additional hot spots so far, “reaching out, saying maybe the one they have is not enough.” For example, Obafemi said, a family may have three children trying to log on for remote schooling at the same time, but “they don’t have the energy they need” from the hot spot.

Assistant Superintendent Stacy Beardsley told the Board that over the past seven days, nine of the district’s schools saw over 85 per cent of their students log in online, with one school at 95 per cent. “We are seeing a really significant uptick in regular engagement with learning,” she said. The nine schools were not named, nor was anything stated about student logins for the district’s nine other buildings.

Board members wanted to know how the current login numbers compared to what happened in the spring, when the COVID-related in-person shutdown happened quickly, and computers were not distributed. That information will be provided.

The hot spots are more important now than ever, because District 65 has extended remote schooling until Nov. 16, assuming COVID-19 conditions even permit opening then. The district had hoped to begin in-person school for those who want it on Sept. 29, but Superintendent Devon Horton said the area’s COVID positivity rate is still too high.

Obafemi said the district has ordered an additional 150 hot spots. But that is just a short-term solution. The district also plans to work with Evanston Township High School, the City of Evanston, and possibly Northwestern University for a community wide-solution that does not require chasing hot spots in the middle of a pandemic.

Jeff Hirsh joined the Evanston Now reporting team in 2020 after a 40-year award-winning career as a broadcast journalist in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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