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 Original article can be found at The Journal Times.

By Caitlin Sievers; May 6, 2020

RACINE — The Racine Unified School Board voted Monday to approve the purchase of 500 cellular internet hot spots to be distributed to families that do not have internet access.

The board was also informed on Monday of the purchase of 6,000 Chromebook charging cords at a total cost of about $198,000.

A yearlong contract that includes three gigabytes of data per hot spot per month comes at a cost of $226,720.

Tim Peltz, Unified’s chief information officer, told the board last week that the cost is higher than for typical hot spots because the district limits internet access on them to try to ensure that they are only used for educational purposes. 

For example, students and their families cannot use the hot spots to watch Netflix.

The district is purchasing the hot spots from Kajeet, a company based in Virginia which provides off-campus wireless internet specifically for students. 

Peltz said that the estimated timeline for receiving the hot spots was two weeks.

The devices will be given to schools and distributed to families based on need. The district has conducted surveys to determine which students need internet access.

“The vast majority of families who have responded to our surveys are in the inner city,” Peltz said.

He added that there are also families in need of access to technology in Caledonia and Mount Pleasant. 

The district previously estimated that about 20% to 30% of its students did not have access to internet at their homes to use for virtual learning.

Some challenges when using cellular hot spots include congestion on the wireless network, meaning connections will not be as fast as wired internet. For example, students will not be able to play high-definition videos using the hot spots.

The limit of three gigabytes of data also presents a challenge. If students do a lot of video conferencing, the data could be used up quickly. But the devices will allow teachers to engage with their students and families, and for students to access online content.

The 6,000 Chromebook chargers were purchased so that the district would not have to disassemble the lockers where Chromebooks and chargers are currently kept at the schools. Peltz said that the chargers already in the district’s possession are either zip-tied to the cart or secured using Velcro.

This would make the process of disassembling the lockers to retrieve the chargers to hand out to students over the summer and then putting them back together in the fall a difficult one, he said.

The district has not previously supplied Chromebooks to students to take home with them, but does have 11,000 that are kept in the lockers at the schools. The district plans to begin allowing students who need them to use district Chromebooks at home over the summer.

Planning for the future

Peltz promised the School Board that the extra chargers would not go to waste after students returned to the classroom, as the district has to order about $15,000 to $20,000 worth of new chargers each year anyway. 

Superintendent Eric Gallien added that as the district transitions to blended learning — using a mix of technology-based and face-to-face instruction — Chromebooks and their charging cords will be going home with students.

“Those cords will be used,” Gallien said. 

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