Greeneville City Schools (GCS) is a Tennessee school district about an hour’s drive from world-famous Dollywood. It’s a small town surrounded by national forests, where the nearly 3,200 students share a motto of #bettertogether – something the town also takes to heart, as evidenced by the ways the community banded together during the pandemic. 

When the seven GCS schools closed in March, school leaders and community members acted quickly to get their students connected. As a result of their efforts, 100% of their students now have Internet access. Here’s how they did it. 

START BY ASSESSING NEEDS

GCS has been 1:1 since 2012. With a 1:1 program in place, the school district also incorporated a question about home internet access into their registration process, which resulted in a solid baseline understanding of which households might need support with connectivity. 

At the start of the 2019-2020 school year, 130 students lacked home Internet access. In March, seeing how the news of the pandemic was quickly evolving, Beverly Miller, the Assistant Director of Schools/Chief Technology Officer of GCS, sent out another survey on home access – this time via mail with a self-addressed stamped envelope. 

The good news: since the beginning of the school year, more families had gotten online. But when schools closed due to COVID-19 in mid-March, 100 students still needed home access for remote learning. 

These surveys put the district in a good position: solving problems starts with understanding the need. When the pandemic caused schools across the country to close, a lot of school districts had to scramble to get their students set up for remote learning. GCS was ahead of the game in part because they have been 1:1 for several years, but also because they had made this data collection process part of their typical business operations.

UNDERSTAND THE CHALLENGES AND IDENTIFY YOUR SOLUTIONS

Once GCS had a clear picture of the number of students they needed to get connected, they continued outreach to families so that they could individualize solutions for students. This gave them a better understanding of the challenges they faced and the actions they needed to take to get all of their kids connected. 

As with most school districts, there wasn’t a universal solution. The school district took a multi-prong approach, including helping families get low-cost residential broadband and hotspots. Making this happen quickly took the support of parents, community members, teachers, vendors and service providers, and local companies.  

Low-Cost Residential Broadband

When the district learned that qualified families could get two months of free Internet access as part of Comcast’s Internet Essentials program during the pandemic, they came up with a plan to help parents take advantage of the offer. In addition to creating a communications strategy, the plan required staffing capacity to spearhead outreach to Comcast as well as the families. 

GCS understood that a primary barrier to parent adoption of the service would be time spent researching the sign-up process and reaching out to Comcast representatives (which can be intimidating). Teacher liaisons were assigned to phone families, inform them of the steps required to sign up, and answer any questions or concerns. 

Hotspots

Because of supply chain issues, providers wouldn’t be able to deliver hotspots for a month. Knowing that she needed to act quickly, Beverly went to social media to ask the community for donations. The response was overwhelmingly positive: members of the community donated 50 personal hotspots, and a local IT company donated an additional 25. Since they had already helped eligible families sign up for Internet Essentials, these 75 hotspots were enough to get the remaining students online. 

Once the hotspot devices were secured, Beverly worked with Kajeet to manage deployment. Her IT team removed the SIM cards and reported the device identification numbers to Kajeet and Verizon, who then used their cloud management application to program CIPA filtering and ensure the devices were in line with GCS’s responsible use policy

When it came time to distribute the hotspots, GCS already had social-distance protocols in place for their school meal pickups and drop-offs. A member of their IT team – while wearing PPE to stay safe – distributed devices and helped troubleshoot at the school. For anyone unable to come to the school to pick up their hotspot, the school bus drivers organized drop-offs of food, devices, books, and other learning materials. 

“Don’t rest until we have a solution for everyone.”
– Beverly Miller, Assistant Director of Schools and Chief Technology Officer

THE RESULTS: STUDENTS ARE LEARNING AT HOME

By acting quickly and utilizing different solutions to meet each student’s needs, GCS connected 100% of their students to the Internet. Every student in the district can now participate in remote learning during school closures and beyond.

Every Sunday, teachers post weekly lesson plans by grade (called a “Choice Board,” see example here), broken up into different sections:

1 | Screen-free activities
2 | Digital lessons
3 | Virtual library resources

In addition to these virtual choice boards, teachers also reach out to students once or twice a week to ensure their basic needs are taken care of and that their Internet is working.

“GCS teachers worked tirelessly to continue teaching during school closures. Grade level, related arts, and special education teachers collaboratively designed choice boards that made learning fun, interactive, and meaningful for our students to continue learning during COVID-19.” 
– DeAnna Martin, Teaching & Learning Coordinator

RECOMMENDATIONS FOR SCHOOL DISTRICTS

1 | Be diligent about needs assessment
2 | Research your connectivity options 
3 | Devote resources to family outreach
4 | Tie connectivity solutions to learning goals