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Undercurrents: Public Schools Fighting to Get On Line

A regular Source column, Undercurrents explores issues, ideas and events developing beneath the surface in the Virgin Islands community. This is the last of a three-part series about how the territory is bridging the digital divide.

Although it’s getting harder and harder, it’s still possible to ignore the Computer Age if you are, say, 80 or 90. Or maybe even 70. But the younger you are, the less likely you are to be able to tune out the rest of the world – or want to.

And if you are a student, you are keenly aware that computer knowledge and computer access are essential to your future.

In many schools, cursive has been replaced by keyboarding. Homework assignments routinely require research via the internet. Communication between the teacher and the student, or the teacher and the parent, is primarily by email. Some classes may even be webinars. We are long past the time when computers in classrooms were looked on as an enrichment tool. They are now essential.

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So what happens to the child who doesn’t have a computer at home? Or even a smartphone? How does he keep up with his homework along with his classmates? And how does the teacher present the latest innovation in a classroom without internet access?

The V.I. Department of Education has been grappling with the issue for years. It’s making progress, according to Rodney Hendrickson, territorial operations manager for the department’s internet technology division. He credited Assistant Commissioner Chermaine Hobson-Johnson with coordinating the initiative to upgrade internet availability in the territory’s schools.

A short-term solution has been computer sharing at school. This has been happening, in one form or another, for many years. Currently, school libraries, which house a few computers, stay open until 4 or 4:30 p.m. to accommodate those students who are able to stay after school, Hendrickson said.

But very soon, there will be more computers available during regular school hours – a minimum of three in every elementary school classroom.

“We’re working on that right now,” Hendrickson said in an interview earlier this month. The project is being handled internally, with his staff installing the computers. The division has a total of 18 employees, 13 of them technicians.

Meanwhile, he said, the department has created an email account for each student, from elementary school through high school. The address can be used at school, on a hand-held device, on a home computer and on a computer at a Public Computer Center.

Access is limited to educational sites.

“We have all the protocols in place,” Hendrickson said. “Facebook is blocked on our internal network for students,” as are other social media and non-educational sites.

“We just migrated all our students onto Office 365,” a program that will give teachers the ability to conduct virtual reality classes with students, he said.

Another service the division is working on involves getting email addresses for parents so they can monitor their children’s progress.

The department is looking into a federal program, Life Line, which offers internet accessibility assistance to low income students. Under one program, students could receive computer devices they could use at home. About 70 percent of the school population would qualify for what is called Title I assistance, he said, so “It is something that’s do-able.” But it won’t happen overnight.

“We have over 15,000 students,” Hendrickson said. That means a lot of devices.

It could also mean the difference between a student getting ahead, or missing out on the future.

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