Eau Claire Public Schools invest in new tech this year, despite shortage

NOW: Eau Claire Public Schools invest in new tech this year, despite shortage

EAU CLAIRE, Mich. - This week on The Learning Curve our team is heading 40 minutes North of South Bend to Eau Claire, Michigan. The school district there is dealing with a growing number of online students and wireless connection is now more pertinent than ever.

"We try to set people up for success and making sure that the infrastructure here is solid," Phil Brackett, the schools' IT Director said.

When you walk into the districts' middle/high school, you may see Brackett speed walking around. 

"Yeah, it's pretty much because of the workload. If I walked slow, I lose the ability to be efficient," he said.

This is his 19th year with the district.

"So I started teaching in 2002. And I've been the Technical Director since 2011," he said.

Almost 30% of Eau Claire’s students are learning online and at home - of course, that can come with challenges. Virtual learning may be the safest option for some families but is connectivity causing a major problem for those living in more rural parts of the county.

"We're really kind of running four schools because you've got a face to face high school and a face to face middle school. But now we've also got a virtual high school and a virtual middle school. And so when you think about, you know, subdividing in that way, it's, it's a challenge for sure," he said.

Like many, Brackett is adjusting to the new normal.

"We have a lot more with the virtual students that were hosting off-campus, there is a lot more troubleshooting to do. And communicating with those students most of the time via email, and making sure that the problems that they're having at home, are being addressed. It's a different scenario," he said. "And so it's a lot of distance troubleshooting. And we kind of got used to that in the spring with the quarantine when the pandemic started, and so starting to get good at troubleshooting from a distance.

To adjust to the increase in online learning, the district decided to give teachers new computers.

"We have purchased new teacher computers for the staff over the course of the summer. Of course, there's a global shortage in technology, especially laptops and things of that nature. And so we forget, yeah, we had to wait for probably took about six weeks for those computers to come into us," Brackett said. "So what I would have liked to have rolled out, you know, the first week of school didn't get here until last week."

The shortage means that Brackett's job a month into the school year is made even harder.

“I've probably done in the last couple of days since I first started offering. I think I've done four or five. So there's miles to go before I sleep," he said.

We followed him around for the day to see what his life is like now.

"I'm just looking through that email list to see who's next on my docket for getting a replacement. We have 55 new teacher laptops, and 25, no, 20 of our staff ever said that they'd prefer a desktop computer. So you can see over there, those laptops are getting ready to be deployed," he said.

And the new computers come at a high price for the quality.

"You pay, you know, you pay six to $700. For a teacher's computer, it's gotta last longer," he said.

Brackett, hoping they can recuperate the costs.

"It's not that they're necessarily bad. In fact, a lot of these machines that we end up replacing, will probably end up selling, either to companies that exist that will take the machines and then refurbish them and resell them," he said.

Luckily, there aren't too many extra costs when it comes to the WiFi plan.

"Well, our network speeds, we have a, we have a dedicated fiber network connection to the school district. So we pay for internet just like anybody else does. But our internet is it's actually significantly faster than you'll find in most other places in the area," he said.

It's something he suspects may be a little bit faster than what most other schools are able to do.

"So we don't have any of anybody waiting to get to a website or anything like that. And if we do, then it's more than likely a problem with their computer," he said.

Eau Claire, being in a more rural part of Berrien County, sometimes cell reception and WiFi signal is not the best.

"We have our times.," Sky Ward, a mother of four said. Three of the kids are learning virtually this year. "He's like, most of the stuff that works perfectly fine. We the school helped us out with a hotspot and a computer for each of the boys. Some stuff, you know, it just, if you're trying to do a median, and there's too many people or something, it's hard to hear, or some of the videos don't like the work or something. But we work around it, we finally figure it out and find our way," he said.

Her son Keigan, commenting saying it's been "pretty easy."

"Yeah. Mom really takes all the stress for you," Sky said.

"We are in a rural area. And so WiFi is not always available in some of these areas. And the wi fi that they have is not very strong.” “and so there are instances where I have to either dial back a student or just contact them by phone, because for some reason that particular day, their WiFi wasn't working very well. So there are ways to kind of go about it," Jennifer Zellers, a third and fourth-grade virtual teacher said.

"Well, we're working through it, I'm becoming much more tech-savvy than I've ever been before," Katherine Glassman and first and second-grade virtual teacher said.

The inability to have internet may limit some student's ability to be successful. 

"I think that in general, not having the ability to have internet. I think that has an effect on all students, whether they're virtual or in school. I think it's very important to have a strong internet at your home for anything. Any student would need," Zellers said.

So the school district eliminated that issue.

"We bought 70 hotspots in the spring, to be able to deploy in that, you know, the emergency situation back then to families who needed a home internet connection of some kind," Brackett said. "And we were surprised in the spring by how many, how many families from our community had reliable internet at home that they felt really good about, and they felt comfortable using for classroom purposes. And so I don't think we ever got to the point where we distributed all 70 of those hotspots. We just didn't need them.”

For Sky, it was a much-needed relief.

"Yeah, definitely I where I live at, I kind of live out in the middle of the country basically. So we don't have internet accessibility, we run off of our hot spots from our phones. And so with that being said, it's way easier since the school was able to give us that," she said.

The district, showing it's families that there are hurdles but that every student deserves a quality education whether it's inside or outside the classroom.

"When we all went home on March 13. You know, we all kind of said goodbye to our students, and we all headed to our homes, and nobody knew what to expect, but you'll learn how to do it. And our teachers here in Eau Claire were just champions of being able to, you know, take that different scene, and a different approach to things and to take it in stride," Brackett said.

If you have any questions or want our team to look into your school district, email us at [email protected].

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