TAMA, Iowa — Virtual learning is hard for a lot of students, but it’s even harder if you don’t have internet. One family in Tama is now struggling as they are running out of data from the hotspot provided by the school.
“Each family got one hotspot to start with. And our hotspot ran out of data after the first week of school. Between their homework and their Google Meet time, it sucked up a lot of that data,” parent and Tama resident Jamie Flathers said.
The Flathers are part of the 25% of families in the South Tama County Community School District without internet.
“We’ve got about 1,500 kids in our system. We’re looking at about 300 to 400 kids who still do not have internet at home,” said South Tama County Community School District Superintendent Jared Smith.
The district said they bought around 250 hotspots to prepare for the school year.
“Then August 10 happened. August 10 was the storm that really ravaged our community. Then we found out we had another 150 families who didn’t have internet as a result of the storm, so we ordered 200 more hotspots,” Smith said.
The district ordered the hotspots with money they received from FEMA after the derecho. But some parents said the issue is their children are blowing through the monthly cap of 30 gigabytes of data too quickly.
“With both children, just the Google live sessions comes out to about 14.5 gigabytes per week, but that doesn’t count any assignments or homework they have to do,” Flathers said.
“We have capabilities of seeing what sites the parents and the families are accessing, so it becomes pretty obvious right away whether this school related or is this personal related,” Smith said.
“They had said there were some other things on the data when they looked into it, but a lot of it was YouTube. Social studies had actually assigned some homework … to watch on YouTube,” Flathers said.
Flathers wants to know what the school has planned moving forward.
“We’ve actually opened up one of our gyms and one of our buildings to house students who either don’t have internet or they’re struggling to access the internet, or they just need a little bit extra assistance,” said Smith.
“We’ve also set up sites at churches. They’ve got some big conference rooms,” Smith said.
Another option is buying unlimited data plans for the hotspots, but the district said that would be very expensive.
“200 hotspots for 30 gigabytes for the year annual plan I think was $125,000,” Smith said.
“It’s a learning process for all of us. But I do think it’s important for the schools to listen to the voices of the students and the parents. Listen to the concerns with empathy. I know they’re stressed out. I know we’re stressed out. But it’s important to see what we can do to help each other,” said Flathers.
The district plans to reassess their students’ data plans after the first month of school, which is in two weeks.