Expanding Internet on the Coast
Florence’s Siuslaw School District addresses the urban/rural digital divide present in its student body
By Mark Howard
The Siuslaw School District (SSD) in Florence is blessed with beautiful Oregon Coast scenery. But this small rural Lane County school district is stricken with poverty, and many students are disadvantaged concerning availability to internet connectivity and digital devices.
When COVID-19 struck, many SSD students didn’t have the technical resources for the virtual learning the pandemic required. Fortunately, the SSD community rose to the challenge.
“One big difference between urban or rural, is that we have a whole lot of places in our area that don’t have any internet at all,” says SSD Board member Suzanne Mann-Heintz. “You know, they’re too far out. Whereas most places in Eugene and Springfield do have internet.”
A First Book COVID-19 Response Survey says that as of May 2020, 40 percent of students in Oregon were without reliable internet, and 37 percent lacked devices needed for remote learning. SSD is no exception. First Book is a nonprofit organization that provides resources to schools and educational programs to help disadvantaged children. According to SSD’s food service supervisor about 72 percent of SSD’s families are on free and reduced lunches.
Florence’s Siuslaw News reported that in August 2020, SSD received the Creating Learning Connections corporate grant which included $4,000 and 350 Google Chromebooks. This helped many students, but it wasn’t enough to cover SSD’s needs.
Lane Education Service District (LESD) business director Dave Standridge says its funds are typically calculated by enrollment, but he says there are other government finances available, called Title I funds. “There are poverty factors that weigh into it to receive additional funding,” Standridge says. Title I funds give financial assistance to local educational agencies and schools with high numbers or high percentages of children from low-income families.
SSD received approximately $600,000 in Title I funds for the 2019-2020 school year and received about $800,000 through Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) in late 2020.
Because of those funds, Mann-Heintz says SSD was able to help students access wifi using devices called mobile hotspots that convert cellular connections into wifi signals and allow students to use the internet if they don’t have it at home.
“We have a number of students who we’re helping subsidize their internet expenses so they can access the distance learning programs,” Mann-Heintz says. “And we have some students who don’t have internet where they are, so we have hotspots that we can loan to those families.”
Siuslaw Elementary School opened for hybrid learning Feb. 22. SSD’s middle and high school began hybrid learning on March 8, according to SSD’s website. The hybrid learning model combines smaller in-person classes with online classes.
Regarding LESD’s funding, SSD’s Business Manager Kari Blake says she doesn’t believe there’s inequality between funds allotted to Eugene and Siuslaw school districts. “They get a portion of the state school fund, and that gets allocated to their districts,” Blake says. “Our superintendent sits on their board and has voting rights to how these dollars will be spent.”
As for corporate grants, it’s different.
“I think that there are some funding opportunities that smaller schools miss the boat on because of the size of the school districts,” Mann-Heintz says. “Luckily, a lot of foundations and organizations are acknowledging the need for specific funding for regions with higher numbers of children with special needs and children with economic impact problems.”
SSD used grant funds to purchase needed Chromebooks for students’ home-use and have already been stockpiling.
“For the last eight years or so we’ve been trying to add to our Chromebooks so that we would have adequate numbers for our classrooms,” Mann-Heintz says. “At this time, we do have a Chromebook for every student, and that’s a pretty big deal.”