‘Connectivity is oxygen’: How Shepherd Community is helping families gain internet access during the COVID-19 pandemic

When the COVID-19 pandemic forced schools across the nation to shut down in March, families and educators were suddenly confronted with a new set of complex challenges. Chief among them: How do children learn in a virtual environment when they don’t have internet access at home?

It’s a question that is especially relevant on Indianapolis’ near east side, where high poverty rates mean that the cost of a monthly internet bill often is out of reach for families struggling to pay for food and housing.  A new Ball State University study found that as many as 84,000 students in Indiana – concentrated in Indianapolis, Lake County and rural areas of the state – lack internet access.

In the early weeks of the crisis, and with libraries and other sites that provide online access closed, Shepherd Community staff responded by setting up a free WiFi hotspot in the center’s parking lot and by taking internet-connected devices to families for temporary use.

But, as a new school year approached, the need for a more permanent solution became a high priority.  How do children continue to learn for an indefinite period when a hybrid model of in-person classes and online instruction is the norm?

To provide the answer, Shepherd has partnered with Charter Communications (Spectrum) to provide internet access at no cost to the community center’s neighbors.  Children can learn from home. Parents can apply for jobs, search for information and access online services.  And Shepherd will pay for the internet connections.

“We believe that connectivity is oxygen,” Shepherd Executive Director Jay Height said. “It’s essential.”

Shepherd Academy students are scheduled to begin in-person classes Aug. 17, but this school year will be much different than any that’s come before.  Face masks and social distancing will be standard protocols.  Students will be in classrooms with their teachers two days a week.  Another two days will involve learning inside the community center via screens.  Every Wednesday the school will close for a deep cleaning, and students will study online at home.

But as we’ve all been reminded in this extraordinarily challenging year, plans can (and often do) change rapidly. The switch back to fulltime remote education remains a possibility for as long as the pandemic rages across the nation. And the need for online access would become an even more pressing issue –one that is directly tied to educational equality and economic and social justice.

In addition to providing online access, the Shepherd team has made several other investments and adjustments to prepare for the new school year.  A second janitor was hired to clean the building. A thermal scanner was purchased to check the temperature of people entering the building.  Families have been provided with touchless thermometers. 

Height said Shepherd already has invested more than $70,000 in equipment and supplies to safeguard students, teachers and staff from COVID-19 during the new school year.  And the leadership team is ready to adjust as new needs become evident.

“Change is so much more constant now,” Height said. “As an organization, we can’t fight it. We have embraced it, because at the end of the day, it’s helping us to better serve our neighbors.”

To help Shepherd handle the extra costs of educating children in this difficult time, go to: https://www.shepherdcommunity.org/covid/

Donations can be designated for Shepherd’s Connectivity Fund to continue to ensure that students have internet access at home.