Digital devices rolled out as ‘virtual’ school term set to start

The Government has announced a $88 million package to help students adjust to the new normal of learning from home

Thousands of modems and internet-ready devices are being sent to households around the country, in a bid to bridge the digital divide before children resume their studies at home next week.

The initiative is part of an $88 million emergency package for schools and students ahead of Term 2, which also includes hard-copy materials and educational broadcasts through TVNZ and Māori TV.

Schools began holidays early as a result of the decision to move into a full lockdown in late March, giving the Government and teachers some time to figure out how students could still learn from home while the restrictions were in place.

With Term 2 due to begin on April 15, Education Minister Chris Hipkins has revealed a suite of measures to assist schools and students, with a particular focus on the tens of thousands of households without access to the internet or digital devices.

Hipkins said the Government was still working to a four-week lockdown timeframe but was planning for every scenario, which meant it was important to develop “robust distance learning infrastructure and a more resilient system so that learners can receive education in any scenario”.

While half of all schools said they were already well set up for distance learning online, the Government was working to provide new connections and resources for students across the country.

Thousands of modems, internet-ready devices going out

About 2000 internet modems would be sent out this week, with thousands more being distributed in coming weeks as the Government worked out commercial deals with ISPs.

About 17,000 internet-ready devices had been ordered and would be shipped to students throughout April, with efforts under way to secure thousands more from offshore.

Officials were looking into the possibility of satellite coverage for the 350 students they estimated had “no internet potential of any kind”.

The devices sent out would be owned by the schools where students studied, with a final decision around where the equipment went in the end resting with them.

Hipkins warned that not all students who needed them would get the equipment they needed at the same time, due to constraints on stocks and the nature of the “big and complex job being delivered at speed”.

Households with students that could not be immediately connected to the internet or be given a device would be delivered hard-copy learning materials.

While students would be working from home, Hipkins said that did not mean parents would be expected to become teachers, with professional educators “continuing to have the primary role in students’ learning”.

Hipkins said the Government would initially prioritise senior secondary school students working towards NCEA qualifications to minimise disruptions to their learning, before moving onto those with the greatest need due to disadvantage.

It was also preparing English- and Māori-language education broadcasts on TVNZ and Māori TV beginning on April 15, with more than six hours of daily content including special content for early learners and parents, Te Reo Māori and a broad array of curriculum-based subjects.

The Ministry of Education was also building up its online resources.

While students would be working from home, Hipkins said that did not mean parents would be expected to become teachers, with professional educators “continuing to have the primary role in students’ learning”.

NZEI Te Riu Roa president Liam Rutherford said the package was a “significant and welcome” announcement for teachers, who had been concerned about maintaining their students’ emotional and physical wellbeing during the lockdown.

Rutherford said it was also important for educators and parents to go easy on themselves, given the country was still in the middle of a crisis and the wellbeing of staff and family was critical for positive education results.

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