CINCINNATI — As the school year nears an end, Cincinnati Public Schools is working with city leaders to try to solve a learning problem facing thousands of students.
While many more students have access to computers than before, thanks to CPS and its partners, the problem is many students don’t have Wi-Fi, and leaders say Wi-Fi is necessary to keep up with at-home learning heading into the summer.
“Wi-Fi is a huge issue. We believe that there are record numbers of students who don’t have access to Wi-Fi,” Cincinnati School Board President Carolyn Jones told City Council’s Education, Innovation and Growth Committee Tuesday afternoon.
Jones said at last check the district has been unable to get into contact with about 39% of its students.
“The district is making a huge effort to identify them,” Jones said.
Before social distancing, CPS encouraged students without home Wi-Fi “to hit hot spots,” Jones said.
“We are currently exploring options so we can close the internet accessibility gap,” Jones said. “Unfortunately at this point, there’s still not a lot of answers on how to fix that.”
Jones said CPS is able to receive federal dollars for the CARES Act but is “looking for ideas.”
Committee chairman P.G. Sittenfeld and council member Jan-Michele Lemon Kearney mentioned that Cincinnati Bell and Spectrum have offered free internet for 60 days as part of a subscription for families with students, but that may not be a viable option for some.
Sittenfeld promised the city’s support, if not financial aid, since it faces a staggering $94 million budget deficit in the fiscal year starting July 1.
“We can’t have a portion of a generation falling behind with lasting consequences because they weren’t wired up at home,” Sittenfeld said.
Sittenfeld suggested the city could “lean on our corporate partners” for help.
Jones said CPS has had more success distributing devices to students since the schools closed, including 4,000 in just the past few weeks.
Likewise, CPS’s food distribution program has been going “really, really well,” Jones said.
She said they have served “about 160,000 meals.”
“We dropped the requirement so kids have to be there” when the food is picked up, she said. “And we’re serving food to any child under 18 whether they’re CPS students or not.”
In addition, teachers are delivering food and supplies to some people who can’t pick it up themselves.
Jones said they no longer need volunteers but they do need toiletries and cleaning supplies to distribute.
Jones said officials are already discussing how to conduct classes in the fall.
“Moving forward, what would it look like?” she said.
Whatever it looks like, it won’t be what it used to.
“We can’t have 30 kids in a classroom with a teacher in a closed environment,” Jones said.
She said the school building might be the centerpiece for a program of teaching and learning that combines in-school activities with at-home virtual classes.
Jones said CPS has been in contact with education experts around the country and as far away as Europe.
“We’ve even been speaking to people in Denmark. People in Denmark have done it well,” she said.
Denmark began reopening schools April 15, starting with the youngest classes. Desks were spaced 6 feet apart, and some lessons were being conducted in gymnasiums and outside, Business Insider reported.
Students were required to wash their hands at least once an hour and allowed to play only in small groups. Still, some parents rebelled. Parents are no longer allowed inside school buildings.
Jones said the district would continue the Wi-Fi discussion and how to reach families at Wednesday’s school board meeting.