The Guam Department of Education is hoping to present a plan to the governor or lieutenant governor this week for procuring internet services for families, according to Superintendent Jon Fernandez.
The department is hoping the work will be completed and services will begin to be provided before the end of the year.
“What we’re looking at right now is eligibility criteria, … so that we ensure that the families most in need are able to get the access to the internet first. So we’re looking at a tiered system of eligibility,” Fernandez said.
Other jurisdictions have based support on income, so GDOE is looking at an income scale to identify and provide services to families, he said.
Another issue being discussed is the scope of services, so that it is clear to internet providers what level of service households should be receiving. A third issue is the possibility that there are places on island that don’t have the infrastructure to easily connect to internet service, Fernandez said.
“We’ll have to probably look for creative solutions, such as – taking from other jurisdictions – maybe using bus Wi-Fi and locating those buses in those areas of the island at some particular point in time,” he added.
GDOE has been entirely dependent on distance learning so far this school year as COVID-19 restrictions have made face-to-face instruction impossible. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, or CARES Act, enacted in March, included federal funding to support schools and distance learning under the Education Stabilization Fund.
GDOE was granted $41.5 million under the ESF, to share with private and charter schools. The department planned to use its funding to purchase safety supplies and distance learning equipment, and improve school facilities to allow for greater internet access. This pot of money is already being spent.
The governor’s office was also granted $12.5 million to improve distance learning. GDOE is a subrecipient under the government’s ESF budget, charged with administering an internet service program.
The government’s budget was submitted to the U.S. Department of Education in August.
However, USDOE has not approved the budget, according to Stephanie Flores, administrator of the Guam State Clearinghouse. USDOE did make contact recently and asked that minor technical changes be made to clarify a section regarding supervision of subgrantees, Flores said.
The changes were due Friday.
Fernandez said GDOE would proceed with getting the internet service plan in place while approval from USDOE stayed pending.
“So when they get the green light, we can go ahead and publish the solicitation and get the internet service providers to respond,” Fernandez said. “We’re still hoping and targeting to try to get this done and get services provided before the end of the calendar year.”
3.3K applicants for 8K laptops
With face-to-face instruction unavailable, GDOE has been using a hard copy method along with full online instruction this school year. The department, however, is trying to move away from hard copy distribution and encourage online learning.
That was part of the purpose behind distributing laptops to secondary school students. But the reception has been underwhelming. GDOE had set up about 8,000 laptops for distribution but received about 3,300 applications.
GDOE’s message was to prioritize families who had no computer equipment but had internet access, and Fernandez acknowledged that some families may have held back because they had at least one laptop. Some families may have not applied and may feel as if they’ve missed the deadline.
At this point, GDOE is welcoming more applications and has issued a release encouraging students to apply. Elementary school parents are also asking when their children can get GDOE laptops, according to Fernandez, as the distribution is limited to secondary school students.
“We’re going to be looking at the numbers and consider whether we need to do more to expand and invite applications from these other groups,” Fernandez said.
Some students are trying to switch from online to hard copy, and GDOE wants to understand why because the department does not believe the hard copy model is something it wants to sustain through the school year if more students can be moved online.
Policy call on hard copies
Other than availability of instruction and less frequent contact with teachers compared to online learning, there are challenges with receiving and distributing hard copy materials, and the overall concern with whether the hard copy model makes sense given the current public health situation, Fernandez said.
“Part of the laptop distribution and internet access expansion will also be a policy decision about whether or not we will continue with hard copy into next semester. And maybe if we make that decision there will be more people interested in making sure they are online, so that we can make sure we can strengthen the online option,” Fernandez said.
GDOE wants to eventually open up face-to-face instruction but doesn’t anticipate that happening until January at the earliest. The department is using a risk assessment to guide its decision-making on traditional instruction and has activated a task force to update reopening plans developed prior to the beginning of the school year.
Reopening will depend on the community health situation and GDOE’s ability to implement mitigation measures before the end of December, Fernandez said. GDOE also wants to gather stakeholder input in the weeks prior to January.
One possibility for returning to traditional instruction is phasing in students wanting face-to-face classes, rather than accommodating them together as originally planned, based on grade level or specific populations, such as students with special needs, Fernandez said.
Regular communication with Adelup
The governor will have the final say on whether schools, both public and private, will open for traditional instruction, but according to GDOE spokeswoman Isa Baza, the department is in regular communication with the governor and she has indicated she will be leaving it to GDOE and private and charter schools to determine when and how to open.
However, the governor has also stated that she did not feel it safe to greenlight face-to-face instruction now because of the rising number of COVID-19 cases.
Schools under the Department of Defense Education Activity on Guam are scheduled to resume in-person instruction today.