Original article can be found at The McDowell News.

By Lilly Knoepp; April 15, 2020

Through a special partnership, an effort is underway to bring more Internet access for students in McDowell County and western North Carolina who are now learning from home because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Western Region Education Service Alliance (WRESA) announced recently a partnership with Dogwood Health Trust to bring Internet access to students as they move to remote learning, due to an order by Gov. Roy Cooper to close schools until at least May 15.

With school districts’ curriculum now online, one of the significant problems the school systems are facing is the lack of Internet access for many of the students. Dogwood Health Trust funded 510 individual, home-based hotspots that WRESA would be able to source to teachers and high school seniors across 11 school districts. WRESA was able to identify the districts most in need of Wi-Fi, allowing for quick deployment, according to a news release.

“We are grateful for the generosity of Dogwood Health Trust to provide hotspots to school systems to allow more Internet access to students,” said Jan Webster, director of WRESA. “The collaboration between WRESA and Dogwood Health Trust has allowed the school systems to identify needs that would assist students in their new remote learning environments.”

For McDowell County, this means the Dogwood Health Trust will provide devices that will expand Internet access for local students.

“McDowell County Schools is grateful to the Dogwood Health Trust for providing 12 Kajeet SmartSpots that will allow us to expand Internet access points to areas of the county where connectivity is not available,” said Superintendent Mark Garrett. “These portable hotspots give us the ability to place them in the community, thus shortening the distance students and families will have to travel to access the Internet. This is one small way we can help remote learning be more successful.”

The units have not yet arrived and the school system is currently evaluating sites that have adequate cell service for them to function properly. Once deployed, the only thing a student will need to do is park near the unit and look for “MCS Community WiFi” and enter the password “success828,” according to Garrett.

In addition, the McDowell County School System has sites with outdoor Wi-Fi. They are Nebo Elementary, Glenwood Elementary, Pleasant Gardens Elementary, North Cove Elementary, Marion Elementary, West Marion Elementary, Eastfield Global Magnet School, McDowell High, West McDowell Middle, East McDowell Middle, the Central Office, Sugar Hill Head Start and the Guard Office below West Middle.

The partnering sites with Wi-Fi are New Horizon Baptist Church, Rocky Pass Free Will Baptist Church, Nebo Crossing, Montford Cove Baptist Church, Concord United Methodist Church, McDowell Technical Community College (MTCCNETWORK), Crooked Creek Fire Department (use the lower parking lot), former Old Fort Finishing plant — Old Fort Elementary pickup area (Skyrunner OFE Hotspot). There will be more to come, said school officials.

The Web version will always have the most up-to-date list of MCS Wi-Fi sites, according to Garrett.

“Our current Wi-Fi hotspots are outdoor access points tied to our Internet connection or that of our partnering agencies,” said Garrett. “The Kajeets operate off of a cellular network signal and do not require a direct connection to broadband or other types of Internet connections. This will allow us to place the units in areas of the county where reliable Internet connections are not available but have a decent cell signal.”

The Kajeet units are also mobile and can be used while traveling around.

“We actually have a couple of them already installed on activity buses for our student athletes to have Internet access while traveling,” said Garrett. “This gives them the opportunity to work on homework or other projects on the way to and from contests.”

For more information about the school Wi-Fi hotspots, you can follow this link: https://mcdowell.k12.nc.us/apps/pages/index.jsp?uRECID=343873 &type=d&pREC_ID=1902205

In addition, two such districts, one rural and one more urban, are already using the technology to facilitate learning.

With more than 35 percent of students without connectivity in Madison County, the need for broadband access was critical. The county began remote learning on March 17, just three days after Gov. Cooper’s order to close schools. WRESA connected the county with Dogwood Health Trust and 40 hotspots were delivered and distributed to students, according to the news release.

“This is a game changer for students, it gives them a choice they didn’t have before, and impacts multiple families living in the same residence,” said Will Hoffman, superintendent of Madison County schools. “It is impressive, and inspiring, to see an organization as big as the Dogwood Health Trust respond so quickly and with such a generous, hands on approach.”

Asheville City Schools was also identified as a district in need of Internet access. “Even after distributing all the hotspots within our district, about 50 families were left without Internet access,” said Matt Whiteside, Asheville City Schools’ director of instructional technology and Media Services. “We’re incredibly grateful for Dogwood Health Trust’s generous donation to ensure all students within Asheville City Schools can grow and thrive despite these challenging times. In fact, because we kept a running list, we were immediately able to get hotspots into the hands of students who needed them most.”

In addition to the individual hotspots, Dogwood has also purchased more than 100 hotspots that will soon be outfitted in school buses. WRESA has been able to facilitate identification of the buses to host the hotspots and locations in which to park them in areas for students to be able to download or access their assignments. Installing the hot spots into buses will allow for social distancing while also alleviating the needs for Internet access felt throughout many rural areas of the region, according to the news release.

“Equitable access to education has taken on new meaning with the COVID-19 crisis,” said Antony Chiang, CEO, Dogwood Health Trust. “We are honored to partner with our regional school districts to reduce disparities especially for rural and lower income families, while supporting the importance of social distancing to reduce transmission.”

Dogwood is working throughout the region to cultivate partnerships that will both flatten the curve and reduce negative societal impacts as a result of COVID-19. Interested partners are encouraged to send an email to covid@dogwoodhealthtrust.org or visit covidwnc.org to explore opportunities.

The Western Region Education Service Alliance (WRESA) has been serving the schools in western North Carolina for over 20 years by providing regional collaborative opportunities through job alike meetings, regional professional development, and grant projects. These efforts have provided WNC schools resources to address common issues and share best practices through networking channels across our region. the goal is to assist schools as they work together for the children of western North Carolina.

Dogwood Health Trust is a North Carolina non-profit corporation with the sole purpose of dramatically improving the health and well-being of all people and communities of Western North Carolina. Dogwood Health Trust became operational upon the sale of Mission Health’s assets to HCA Healthcare and is the recipient of the net proceeds of the sale. To learn more, please visit www.dht.org.

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