Fort Smith schools gear up to finish out year; students without internet remains an issue

by Tina Alvey Dale ([email protected]) 1,512 views 

Gov. Asa Hutchinson made the call Monday (April 6) that schools will remain closed for the remainder of the 2019-2020 school year. Fort Smith Public Schools are ready, officials say.

The alternative methods of learning plans elementary teachers had prepared in March when school closures were extended to mid-April ran out Friday (April 3), said Zena Featherston Marshall, executive director of communications and community partnerships.

“We are going to be using the Arkansas PBS for elementary students,” Marshall said. “Secondary is operating a little differently.”

At the secondary level, teachers go online at least once a week to give assignments to students, she said.

“It’s really a balancing act,” she said. “They have to communicate with their students. But right now, everyone seems to be hitting a stride, and it’s working.”

At the secondary level, FSPS know some students do not have internet access, though they don’t exactly how many. Through unscientific research methods, the district gathered that less than 6% of students did not have internet access at their home, Marshall said.

“But our surveys were online, so we probably didn’t get particularly good results from it,” she said, noting if they didn’t have access it would be difficult to answer the survey question. The school district distributed some internet hot spots to students who needed them in March. The district had 32 hot spots on hand when the COVID-19 pandemic led officials to the decision to stop on-campus schooling for students.

“A few of those were provided to staff to enable work-from-home,” Marshall said.

Arkansas Oklahoma Gas Corp. gave the district 15 hot spots for students, all of those were distributed to students. They also donated a number of hot spots to Darby Junior High for students. Marshall said she did not know how many of those were donated.

At the March 16 FSPS Board of Education meeting, Martin Mahan, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, told the board students without internet service at home had the option of using thumbdrives the district had purchased. Students could come to their school, pick up the thumbdrive, download all needed material and take it with them, he said.

“Very few students took advantage of the thumb drive option. We believe that the number was low because of the timing. It was among the first options and it was introduced before Spring Break,” Marshall said.

Dr. Doug Brubaker, superintendent, said at a press conference Friday that Cox Communications was offering 60 days of free internet service to any student in need of home internet access, which would get students through the end of year. He also said seniors who were in good standing for graduation as of March 13 were considered eligible for graduation.

“We have a unique opportunity to hear to help ensure 100% meet that standard. We have reached out to all our seniors, especially those who were struggling before all of this took place. We are working with them individually to try to help them across the finish line,” Brubaker said.

The school district sent out notices to seniors who officially “graduated” Friday.

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