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St. Helena Parish school officials held a simulation of in-person classes Thursday, July 16 ahead of the 2020-2021 school year.

St. Helena Parish school officials will soon begin strategically placing Wi-Fi enabled school buses throughout the community to bolster internet capability for rural students.

The idea was one Superintendent Kelli Joseph says was born of necessity after a full virtual mode showed as many as 35% of the district's students didn’t have reliable internet.

“We understand that our community has an access gap,” she said. “A lot of our families don’t have good access so we’re trying to think outside the box and find ways to accommodate our students.”

The district has been full virtual since it opened for the 2020-21 year on Aug. 3, but on Sept. 8 will move to a hybrid model where students split time between virtual learning and on-campus instruction.

Joseph said the parish’s coronavirus case numbers have reduced enough to allow for students to return safely with social distancing measures in place.

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The district is using $70,000 in CARES Act funding to equip 23 buses with Wi-Fi devices, and an additional nine devices that can go in locations like churches or stores that are in low-connectivity areas.

“It’s critical that all of our kids have access; it’s about equity,” Joseph said. “We are equity minded and we just want to make sure everybody is set up for success.”

The Wi-Fi devices will enable 340 families that didn’t have internet access to get online for virtual learning. The district has about 1,200 students, according to Department of Education enrollment data.

St. Helena students were initially set to be one of the first to return to in-person classes this year, and the district even completed a school day simulation with teachers and parents to get a better idea of what additional safety protocols should be put in place.

But, a few days before the school year began, they sidetracked in-person plans in favor of a full virtual model. Joseph said at the time it wasn't yet safe for staff or students to return to buildings as case numbers were increasing across the state. 

St. Helena was set to be the first back in class, but those plans have been scratched

Joseph said district officials are also seeking additional avenues to increase connectivity, including partnerships with companies like Verizon to increase rural internet access.

The Wi-Fi devices will be installed on buses the week of Sept. 13.

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