Internet access ‘almost as important as nutrition’ and Port Huron Schools found a way to provide it

The COVID-19 pandemic has presented an array of challenges to the school districts in our region. Chief among them is providing students access to the internet. For how are students supposed to learn remotely if they don’t have internet at home?

Early on in the school year, the Port Huron Area School District arranged free community WiFi locations throughout the area. Parents could bring their children to use the internet at a number of locations, including Hillside Wesleyan Church in Clyde, Mt. Pleasant Bible Church in Wales, and the YMCA of the Blue Water Area.

The district also set up learning labs, where students can arrange to come in for direct support. Port Huron schools even went so far as to create a Parent University, providing support for the parents who now share the instructional load as their children attend school from home.

Perhaps one of the district’s most innovative responses to the COVID-19 pandemic is the MiFi program. Because not every student has access to the internet at home, PHASD is providing free MiFi devices to area households. And because not every home is even equipped to connect to fast and reliable internet infrastructure, like those in our rural communities, the MiFi devices provide the internet through cellular data.

The program has proven popular. As of last week, PHASD has supplied more than 100 MiFi units to area households and has responded to 200 more requests. The district’s IT department is able to add 10 MiFi units per week.

“I am so proud of how Port Huron Schools students and staff are reinventing how they learn and teach,” says acting superintendent Theo Kerhoulas.

“As a district, finding ways to support every child holistically is imperative. Getting food, technology, and the internet into our families' homes is essential before remote learning can happen effectively.”

We had a few more questions about the MiFi program and Mr. Kerhoulas obliged.

The Keel: What is MiFi?

Theo Kerhoulas: Since many of our rural areas do not have fiber or broadband access we must look to cellular carriers. These also vary in strength for different regions of our district, so we use multiple providers and match families with carriers that best fit their location.

Keel: How is it different from providing the community WiFi locations?

Kerhoulas: Originally when we were forced to go "Brick to Click" (learning remotely) our district "lit" up our parking lots with wifi (this still exists) but now getting wifi directly into our family's homes is best for kids' learning remotely.

Keel: How did the program come about?

Kerhoulas: Our district reacted to the need brought on by the pandemic for our students learning remotely.

Keel: How important is it for PHASD to keep communicating with students and their parents regarding technology concerns?

Kerhoulas: Almost as important as nutrition (which we also provide). During the pandemic, internet is an essential need for our students.

Keel: What are the chances a program like this might stick around once COVID-19 is under control and regular school days resume?

Kerhoulas: Right now the funding is due to the pandemic. As these dollars run out we will look for alternative funding sources to continue the program.

Got a development news story to share? Email MJ Galbraith here or send him a tweet @mikegalbraith.
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