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Schools equip buses with Wi-Fi technology

Even before the pandemic, the idea of digital connectivity on the western end of Monongalia County was a lot like that quote from the old “Forrest Gump” movie about life and the box of chocolates.

That is to say, one never knows what one might get —  in terms of cell phone service and Wi-Fi — as West Virginia 7 unspools from the outer edges of Star City to Blacksville and beyond.

“Cell phones are the issue out here,” David Cottrell said. “After so far, you’re just not going to get a signal.”

Cottrell is the principal of Clay-Battelle High School, which is actually a middle school and high school under one roof, as it houses grades 6-12 on a campus in Blacksville complete with an updated façade and football field.

With schools in Mon likely to stay remote for a while into fall, the principal said he appreciates the effort undertaken by the local district and the state Department of Education to bridge the technology gap.

There’s the state-driven Kid’s Connect initiative, which is working to turn 1,000 sites across West Virginia into mobile Wi-Fi spots, so families can, say, drive to a parking lot where a bus from their district will be sitting, equipped with the technology to log on.

Gov. Jim Justice said earlier this week that technical staff from the education department worked through the Labor Day holiday weekend on the project, bringing 848 sites of the target 1,000 online.

Mon County Schools had already launched its own effort before the governor’s announcement.

Chris Urban, the district’s technology director had ordered Wi-Fi units over the summer for installation in county buses,  given the district’s original back-to-school plan (since overruled by Justice) to go back to school totally remote for the first nine weeks, whether COVID-19 was surging or not.

That’s why any school bus you’ll see on the road these days will likely be transporting not your kid —  but the components necessary for that kid’s Chromebook and classes at a school existing in the air for now.

Fifteen buses from Mon Schools are currently parked in 15 locations across the county, from River Road and the Kingwood Pike, to Richard and Jakes Run, to Summer School Road and Cheat Lake.

Visit the district website for the complete list of locations.

Just up the road from Cottrell’s school sits Mason-Dixon Elementary, whose students eventually end up at Clay-Battelle.

Cottrell said he plans on keeping the Zoom meetings he’s started with parents as part of the proceedings once students go back to school.

Mason-Dixon’s principal Denice Corder agreed, saying such enhancements can only enhance the learning while keeping families even more involved.

“It’s a lot smoother than it was in the spring,” she said. “It’s amazing how quickly people can adapt.”

Families, especially the ones in western Mon, make the grade for both administrators.

Both grew up in the Blacksville area. Both graduated from Clay-Battelle, and both eventually taught there, as they were beginning their careers.

And Wi-Fi is the way of the world, both administrators said.

According to a survey over the summer reported by the Washington, D.C., think tank, the Brookings Institution, one out five of the chief financial officers who responded say they’ll continue to keep at least 20% of their employees working from home — even after COVID-19 clears.

Just don’t keep it too distant, they said, once the crisis is over.

The principals said they can’t wait for the presence of students back in Clay-Battelle and Mason-Dixon, once it’s safe to be there.

David Cottrell mused on that as he readied to conduct yet another meeting through the Zoom platform.

“Do you realize it’s been six months since a Mon County kid has been in an actual Mon County classroom? Six months.”

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