SC parents discover virtual learning isn’t free for all

SC parents discover virtual learning isn’t free for all

CHESTERFIELD COUNTY, S.C. — Starting Sept. 8, virtual learning begins for elementary and middle school students in Chesterfield County. The following week, high school students will start the program, as well.

There are going to be growing pains, and the school district expected that. Much of the county is rural, and internet service can be spotty or non-existent.

That’s why the school system received about 4,000 wi-fi hotspot devices from the state through federal CARES Act money. Families don’t get one unless they meet federal income requirements, which are tied to the poverty level, based on family size.

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Chesterfield school leaders said of the 3,050 students that are learning virtually, only 2,600 qualified to receive a free hotspot. Another question is about the device students will be using to learn on at home.

Sheila and Travis Honeycutt have a child at Ruby Elementary, and another at Chesterfield High School. They thought the Chrome books they expected their children to use would come from the school district and would also be free. They just learned that they have to qualify for the devices too, and they don’t meet the income requirements.

“We never received any information by phone, or by email that actually stated that you had to qualify for these electronic devices,” Sheila said.

The Chesterfield School District is providing Chrome books, but only to lower-income families.

Students services director Brian Batson said parents should have made plans once they signed up for remote learning this summer. That’s because at sign up, there was a questionnaire telling parents what they would need for remote learning.

The very first question on there that you had to answer was that you had access to the internet, and you already had a device, too,” Batson said.

Sheila said that was a shock, and she’s concerned about other families also finding that out, and unable to afford a laptop or tablet for virtual school.

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There are other potential issues as well. Each of the hot spot devices must be hand-programmed individually. It’s been a tedious process because local cell towers are often overwhelmed and loading the devices hasn’t always worked. Batson has concerns about how remote learning will work when everyone’s using it.

“We don’t know what’s going happen on Sept. 8 when all these people start working online at the same time,” he said.

Then there’s another issue that isn’t being talked about much yet. The hot spot devices are only paid for half the school year, through December. That means second semester, if students are not back in school five days a week, either parents will have to pay a monthly fee to Verizon for the devices, or more government funding will have to be approved.

Some families, looking at the challenges of learning entirely online are reconsidering coming back to school, on the two-day, A/B day schedule.

As for the Chrome books, Chesterfield County is not a one-to-one school district. That means the district, at this time, cannot provide each and every student with a laptop or mobile device. The district is working toward that goal, but this fall, they can only provide devices to families that qualify for one.