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IW schools face internet, budget challenges

Isle of Wight’s public schools face two challenges as the second week of the 2020-2021 year begins — internet access for students engaged in virtual learning and a potential budget shortfall of nearly $1.8 million.

Superintendent Dr. Jim Thornton told the school board at a Sept. 10 meeting that hundreds of the division’s approximately 5,500 students do not have reliable internet to do their school work through virtual learning platforms, according to estimates compiled by principals and school officials.

The problem seems to be most significant at Windsor High School, where about 145 of the school’s approximately 560 students don’t have access to internet that’s fast and reliable enough to do their work. Leah Carroll, the student liaison to the board from Windsor High, shared her experience first hand during and after the board’s Sept. 10 meeting at Smithfield High School.

“I’m one of the lucky ones because I have a car and a license and I can drive to a nearby school building or a relative’s house,” to get good internet, said Carroll, who is a senior. “But for whenever I’m home, seriously, I know I can never expect to do anything. I always have to tell my teachers to tell me exactly what the assignment is so I can download it, preplan, and know when I have to go drive somewhere for a Zoom.”

Susan Goetz, the division’s executive director of leadership, whose responsibilities include coordinating curriculum and instruction, said the school system has been focusing on how to assist students without reliable internet. “They are of great concern to us because we have students at this point who have not accessed anything,” Goetz said. The first day of school was Sept. 8.

Goetz also shared with the board anecdotes of how students and families are struggling to connect. In one instance, she said assistant superintendent Micahel Lombardo saw students sitting in the parking lot at Windsor High School in their cars with the windows down doing their Zoom meetings “and you know how hot it is,” Goetz said. “But that’s what they’ve got and that’s what they’re trying to do.”

To address the issue, Goetz suggested, and Thornton said he would support a plan to bring some students into school buildings to allow them to download their work using the school’s wi-fi. “We really want to explore that,” she said.

The board decided this summer that Pre-K through third grade students would have the option to return to school for in-person learning, while fourth through 12th grade students would start the year remotely.

According to Thornton, about 100 Smithfield High students and about 70 to 80 at Carrsville Elementary, Georgie D. Tyler Middle and Westside Elementary don’t have good internet. About 50 at Smithfield Middle are having the same problem.

Between the internet troubles, new schedules for families and health concerns due to COVID-19, not all students have returned to school. The result is a funding shortfall for the division. State funding is based in part on the total number of students in each public school system, among other factors.

Legislation in the General Assembly would have given local governments the option of using school enrollment numbers from last year in order to ensure more funding stability. But the bill failed in a committee vote.

“What makes us powerful is our people and if we don’t have the funding to stay whole — and what I mean by stay whole is keep my employees and keep my staff here to serve our children in these challenging times — that is urgent,” Thornton said. “It’s a bad signal when our state representatives table that (bill) indefinitely. We can’t table our decisions. I may have to make decisions next month to start furloughing people.”
Carroll, the Windsor High senior, said she’s glad the superintendent and the board brought the internet troubles to the public’s attention. “It’s just a really hard concept to explain to other people, so I’m really glad that people could hear tonight what it’s like,” she said.

Another hard idea to digest is that this year will once again bring a new normal for high school seniors.

“The worst thing is not having a definite answer of when we really can go back, and if I can go to prom and I can have graduation,” Carroll said. “And on top of that, we have a lot of graduation requirements to fulfill and just a lot of school work. It’s a pretty hard year for all of us.”