Chromebooks have become an essential part of students’ lives at Union R-XI School District.

In nearly every class from grade seven and on students use the district assigned laptop. However, for some, connectivity outside of school can be a challenge.

That’s where District Technology Coordinator Matt Jones said he hopes the district can make a difference. As the district becomes more focused on technology, Jones is pushing to keep in mind students who are relying on the electronic tools and meet the challenges that come with internet-based learning.

Starting this week, Union High School and Middle School began offering mobile Wi-Fi hotspots at the schools’ libraries to help students who have poor or no internet connection at home connect to the internet.

Currently, the district offers Chromebooks for every student in grades three to 12, as part of its One-to-World technology initiative. Jones said the school district has roughly 950 devices for its students and has reached 1-1, or a device for each of its students from third grade up.

“Our staff is trying really hard to work around those limitations in their curriculum,” Jones said. “In an instance where a student would like to go home and do some research or some makeup work, for instance, that (the hotspots) will be an option.”

The high school has three hotspots, which Instructional Technology Coaches Amy Hall and Taylor Tholen said have garnered attention in their first week at the high school.

Tholen said many students live in areas where access to the internet is limited or non existent. He said when students are in those situations they aren’t working on a level playing field.

“Last year, even two years ago, technology was important here but we didn’t have a level playing field. You could assign homework but if it needed the use of a computer there were students at a disadvantage,” Tholen said. “Most students have internet access of some sort. But if they don’t have that, they’re at a disadvantage.”

The Chromebooks, which work through the Google Chrome system, are partially reliant on a Wi-Fi connection to work properly. While the Chromebook will work without it in certain capacities, some features on the laptops become limited.

The hotspots are set up to only be used for school work. Hall said this deters students from loaning the hotspots for the wrong reasons. She said the hotspot restricts access to social media, streaming and gaming sites.

“They are pretty limited in what they can do because they are designed to work for homework,” Hall said. “It’s not designed for anything else.”

Hall said she makes a point to explain to students what the Wi-Fi hotspots should be used for when a student comes to rent them from the library. She said the box is as small as a deck of cards, discreet and small enough to tuck into a backpack.

She added that the library hopes to add more hotspots to their collection. Currently, the library has three Verizon hotspots but hopes to add AT&T hotspots as well, as the coverage area can be different for students.

Jones said if the program takes off, the school will invest further into the hotspots. He said that’s the case with all of the school’s technology initiatives.

The district currently has 15 hotspots in total. For the hardware to operate there is a service charge of $20 a month for each unit, totalling roughly $3,000 annually. The hardware itself was purchased for $2,100.

Jones said as long as technology is at the forefront of Union students’ education, the district will continue to seek ways to support that learning.

“We’re trying to help bridge that gap. We’re aware that it’s a need,” Jones said. “If it takes off we’re certainly going to provide support for that.”