Almost 1,500 ACPS students without reliable internet, district working to meet needs before school starts

Almost 1,500 ACPS students without reliable internet, district working to meet needs before school starts
Bert Jacoby holds Kajeet systems that will provide internet to students who don't have reliable service at home. (Source: WVIR)

ALBEMARLE COUNTY, Va. (WVIR) - The first day of school for students Albemarle County Public Schools (ACPS) is right around the corner, but many still do not have access to reliable internet to do their online school work.

According to a survey the district released earlier in the year, almost 1,500 of their students do not have reliable internet. Many teachers across the county also struggle with maintaining a reliable connection. ACPS Coordinator of Digital Equity Bert Jacoby says making sure everyone has access to reliable internet and technology is no small feat.

“We pushed the start of school back two whole weeks and we are still looking at every minute of the day to try and get ready for Tuesday morning for students to start,” Jacoby said.

The district supplied laptops and iPads to students earlier in the year. It’s now working with providers like Comcast for cheaper internet plans and distributing hundreds of hot-spots called “Kajeets,” across the county. Each Kajeet is worth nearly $600 each and can take weeks to receive. The district is currently waiting on technology that’s been back-ordered for several weeks, and will likely continue ordering Kajeets and other necessary items throughout the school year.

“We’re having a hard time getting our hands on these smart-spots,” Jacoby explained. “We’re not the only people trying to buy them.”

Unfortunately, some of the hot-spots are not even guaranteed to work, especially in more rural areas that have little to no internet coverage already.

“If you tell me that you don’t have internet at your home in Free Union and we send you a Kajeet, you’re gonna go home and might find out it doesn’t work,” Jacoby said. “There’s a reason why you don’t have internet at home already and it’s not necessarily because you haven’t been trying, it’s just not there. The cellphone providers having built out the service to be there. The internet providers haven’t built out the service to be there.”

Although a large percentage of technology costs are covered by grants, sponsorships or by third-party providers, some teachers still foot the bill for their own personal technology costs. Teachers like Ruth Sisman are getting by with technology grants, but still have to troubleshoot their internet problems from home.

“Right now I’m sitting next to my router, sometimes I’ll plug it into the ethernet and I don’t see how I’m going to be able to Zoom because I did a test and I only have about 2.5 upload and that is not going to work with Zoom and Nearpod if I have 15 students online,” Sisman said.

Sisman said when the technology actually works, it can yield positive results. She saw it happen first-hand with her own student.

“It was like pulling teeth to get work out of him and if he did show up sometimes he was like ’I’m not going to be there,’” Sisman explained. “He was the first one, when we went remote, he was the first one to finish his assignments.”

That’s why both Jacoby and Sisman say the technology and internet to be as accessible as possible. They also agreed that many students will benefit from virtual learning by working with emerging technologies they’ll likely use in the future.

”I want my students to have the best experience,” Sisman said.

Virtual classes begin on Tuesday for ACPS students.

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