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This Rural School District Has Been Asking for Wi-Fi for Years. Now It’s Finally Getting It.

An anonymous individual donated a dozen internet hotspots. A school district near Chicago is sending Chromebooks. And a superintendent in rural Illinois is stunned by the support to keep his students learning.

A junior high school classroom in Trico District 176 has remained empty since all Illinois schools were closed in March. (Courtesy of Larry Lovel)

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This story is a collaboration between ProPublica Illinois and the Chicago Tribune.

Since the March shutdown of schools across Illinois, teachers at one rural southwestern district have been stuffing 800 manila envelopes with learning packets and mailing them to students’ homes because many families in the area don’t have computers or high-speed internet.

Trico District 176’s remote learning challenges were highlighted in a ProPublica Illinois and Chicago Tribune story last month that exposed a digital divide across Illinois as schools shifted to remote learning because of the COVID-19 pandemic. State agencies later released a map touting publicly accessible Wi-Fi hot spots at about 250 locations; none are in the 250 square miles that make up the Trico district.

That’s about to change. A local internet provider is installing Wi-Fi service to connect families to the district network. An anonymous donor pledged to donate a dozen hot spots. And a school district in Chicago’s suburbs said it would ship about 250 used Chromebooks to Trico when the computers are replaced after this school year.

The Trico superintendent, Larry Lovel, said he’s been taken aback by the generosity of each donation.

The article “brought the issue that everyone knew about back to the forefront and exposed the inequities that people sometimes overlook,” Lovel said in an interview. “The gaps are so wide, it is like fissures. People saw we are still using (dated) Risograph copy machines and 7-year-old laptops.”

The inequities are personal to Lovel, who has three children in the Trico school system: a daughter in fifth grade and two sons, an eighth grader and a high school junior. His wife is a third-generation first grade teacher in the district. Lovel recently arrived home from work to find her at the dining room table writing cards to her students: “Thank you so much for working hard on your schoolwork at home. I am proud of you,” she wrote to one.

When the district held its first remote board meeting this month, the board president had to travel to the school to log in because internet service is too unreliable at her home. No members of the public attended and a local reporter had difficulty hearing the reports, Lovel said.

Before the pandemic, the district’s network administrator, Justin Morgan, had been thinking about how to get connectivity to students living across the vast square mileage in Jackson, Perry and Randolph counties, where families mostly work in coal mining or agriculture. Within the district boundaries there are no supermarkets, one gas station and one major retail store, a Dollar General.

Last month, with attention focused on the area’s remote learning challenges, Morgan reached out to a small, local internet provider, BLIP Networks, to see if it could help. BLIP — the first letter of each of the owners’ names — said it could.

“Instead of thinking of barriers in our way, the conversation went to, ‘Let’s break down the barriers and move forward,’” Lovel said. “The pandemic caused them to expedite the brainstorming. ... There were no more excuses or waiting for someone else and it was awesome.”

BLIP is now installing publicly accessible Wi-Fi hot spots in each of the district’s six communities; families can drive up to the sites and access the internet to do schoolwork or download or upload materials to online learning platforms. The Wi-Fi will be connected to the district’s network, so when students log into the Wi-Fi, they will be directed to the district’s landing page. Inappropriate material will be filtered out, just as it is when the network is accessed from within the school buildings.

BLIP already has installed hot spots at the community parks in Ava and Campbell Hill. Others will be turned on soon at St. Ann Church in Raddle and at sites in the villages of Willisville and Cutler.

Ian Ellison, one of the BLIP owners, said the hot spots will solve only part of the digital access problem. “Until the schools issue Chromebooks for all the kids, we won’t be able to have as much uptake as we could,” Ellison said.

Most of Trico’s laptops are used machines donated through a program with the State Farm insurance company. But there aren’t enough computers for all students, and some are so old that a couple of years after the donation, the batteries no longer work.

Lovel said the Trico district expects to receive about $240,000 in federal coronavirus relief funds, which he will put toward additional Chromebooks and subscriptions to online curricula.

The superintendent of Fremont School District 79, six hours from Trico in north suburban Mundelein, offered to donate 250 to 300 of the district’s laptops when it gets new ones after this school year. The Trico district will need to purchase only the license to run Google Chrome on the machines.

“We wanted to do something to help,” Fremont Superintendent Bill Robertson said in a statement. “Instead of recycling these decommissioned Chromebooks as we normally would, we wanted to donate these devices to the Trico School District in order to help with their students’ educational experience.”

A Chicago-area education lawyer who saw the story also reached out to Lovel. “What do you need?” she said she asked him.

“He was like, ‘We’re fine, we will get by just fine.’ I knew he would, because that’s what administrators do, but I was like, ‘We are going to figure this out,’” said Sara Boucek, the former general counsel for the Illinois Association of School Administrators.

Boucek made some calls and connected with someone who decided to donate 12 hot spots that students can use or that the district can put on buses and drive to various locations so students can log in. She is working to get new copy machines for the district, too.

“She found a guardian angel,” Lovel said. “I can’t say it enough. One article matters.”

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