Students in Washington Township start the school year online

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INDIANAPOLIS– Washington Township students are back in class, at home. The district was one of the first to announce its move to virtual learning and now we are getting a first look at how it works.

This is unlike any first day of school that Washington Township Teacher Tom Gayda has ever experienced.

“It’s a lot different when you’re just looking at a screen,” Gayda explained.

The hallways are empty, but you will still find teachers inside their classrooms.

“I’ve maybe each class only had maybe one kid not come in at all and a couple that maybe were a little bit later than the others,” Gayda said. “But for the most part it’s been pretty good.”

“There’s no win-win situation right now, so we made the best choice we thought for our district,” said William Turner, the President of the Washington Township School Board.

It was not an easy decision for Turner to move learning online, but being a one-to-one district made it a possibility. Each student in Washington Township has a Chromebook and if needed, a WiFi hotspot for families who do not have internet.

“When we said we were going to go all virtual, we knew there were concerns for certain student populations within our district,” said Turner. “But at the same time we knew the safety concern of bringing them back into the school when we weren’t really sure.”

“We were looking at the trend of the data as well back then saying, ‘hey it’s going up should we really be opening schools?’ Now we see it really is going up in Marion County and around the state, so now we look back and say, ‘yeah – we did make the right choice,'” Turner added.

The move to virtual learning is impacting students statewide. A new study by Ball State University shows more than 84,000 students in Indiana may lack internet access at home.

“We were troubled of course that a very high proportion of those students who lack any internet access are coming from the same populations where education is more challenging, so single parent households, low income families or those who struggle with English language,” said Michael Hicks, the Director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at Ball State University.

Hicks and his team found among Indiana households without internet most are single-parent households at 57%. It was found that parents not in labor force is 18.9%, low-income families at 35.2%, and non-English speakers at home 22.4%.

The study also found that the interruption of school in March resulted in wide variation in delivering online education across Indiana.  

Hicks says there are many solutions that need to be addressed, but schools should find a way to provide a physical space to access internet to help.

“Empty big box stores in every community that could be converted or learning centers that have broadband internet, where the space is broad enough where you can have students’ social distance,” explained Hicks.

The research does say moderate and monitored home internet use has positive impacts on a child’s school performance.  As for Washington Township, this first day may look different, but the teachers are ready to get back on track.

“We’re going to work as hard as we can as a board to do the best we can for all of the students,” said Turner.

Gayda added, “In the long run it will pay off.”

The next school board meeting for Washington Township schools to discuss what is next for virtual learning is on Monday, August 3.

Washington Township Schools are also benefiting by the faith community bordering the district, who is coming together to support students as virtual learning launches. According to the district, volunteers at St. Luke’s United Methodist Church, Second Presbyterian Church and Northminster Presbyterian Church have been packaging school supplies into both virtual learning kits and in-person learning kits for distribution to students who qualify for free and reduced lunch across the district.

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