Click here for the latest coronavirus news, which the BDN has made free for the public. You can support our critical reporting on the coronavirus by purchasing a digital subscription or donating directly to the newsroom.
The Bangor School Department has turned to fundraising to provide 350 local families with internet access so those students can participate in online learning activities while school buildings are closed due to the coronavirus pandemic.
It’s among a handful of efforts in Maine to provide students with internet access while school is closed and all instruction has gone remote.
The University of Maine System has offered to set up WiFi at 140 schools and libraries across the state. The networks would be accessible from school and library parking lots so students could log on and study from cars.
On March 16, Spectrum started offering two free months of internet access for homes with students who did not have an active connection, but only homes that had not subscribed to the provider within the past 30 days could qualify for the offer.
In Bangor, the school department had raised more than $28,000 in a week toward a $60,000 goal as of late Tuesday afternoon. With all students equipped with an internet connection, Superintendent Betsy Webb said, teachers will be able to conduct more of their instruction online.
When Bangor schools initially closed last month, they provided hard-copy, take-home packets for the first two weeks.
Some teachers since then have used email and video-conferencing to stay in touch with students who have internet connections. But for equity of access, Webb said, Bangor is looking to provide all students with the same opportunities to learn online.
“If we have all students online, it will open the opportunity for teachers to do Google Classroom where they all might come together at a certain time to all participate electronically in understanding the project or the activity,” she said.
The school department has enough older laptops to provide to students who don’t have their own, but internet access is the limiting factor.
Through the fundraising and a matching grant, Webb said, the school department is hoping to purchase 350 mobile hotspots — portable devices to which laptops, phones or tablets can connect to access WiFi. Webb said she hopes that the portable WiFi devices can be in homes that need them by next week.
The money from the fundraising effort and the grant will cover the cost of purchasing the devices, setup and connection fees and four months of internet connection. Schools buildings are currently scheduled to reopen May 1, but Webb has said it’s unlikely schools will reopen at all this school year.
“The fundraising is necessary in order to provide something that schools do not typically provide so that children are able to learn and communicate,” Webb said.
The mobile devices are preferable to setting up WiFi networks in school parking lots, Webb said.
“My fear about the parking lot is it will be hard for some families to sit in a parked car in a parking lot for a long period of time, especially if families are working or caring for somebody else,” she said. “That would be a hard working environment for me, too. It’s better than nothing, but it’s not optimal.”
Watch: 6 ways you can prevent COVID-19