DELTA — Two school buses parked near a mobile home park sit empty.

While they are not transporting students to and from school or to extracurricular activities during school closures necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Wi-Fi-equipped buses are delivering internet access to students who don’t have connections at home so they are able to use school-issued Chromebooks.

It’s one means Millard School District is using to keep instruction going since the statewide school dismissal announced on March 13.

The district has also boosted internet signals at several of its schools so cars can pull into parking lots and students can do their schoolwork or download the educational materials they need. Some churches in the area have also offered families use of their Wi-Fi connections.

“We want to make sure we’re providing every alternative and every opportunity for those students to have internet access.” — Millard School District Superintendent David V. Styler

“We want to make sure we’re providing every alternative and every opportunity for those students to have internet access,” said Superintendent David V. Styler.

Initially, the district outfitted buses with Wi-Fi so students who participate in extracurricular activities could do schoolwork during long rides to games or other events.

“A lot of times, most of the places they’re going to are at least an hour and a half or two and a half to three hours away,” said Styler.

Eleven of the district’s 36 school buses are equipped with Wi-Fi and as the district replaces aging buses, they will have the same technological features, said transportation director Ivan Christensen.

In-school learning in Utah public schools has been suspended until at least May 1, and conceivably longer. In the meantime, Millard County expects students to keep on top of their studies, Styler said. Teachers and the school district stand ready to help, he said.

“I wish to make it very clear to all of our parents and students that the work we are giving is focused and curriculum based. It is not an optional time filler until we can return to school. It is our expectation that this work will be graded and will count toward student progress and grades,” Styler posted on the district’s website on March 27.

Heading into a fifth week of school closures, Styler has become increasingly concerned that students and their families are struggling without the structure and resources that schools provide.

“We have many students who are falling behind. We have encouraged our schools to try to reach all students and parents. ... If you have not heard from the schools, please reach out to the teachers of your students. ... They can assess the needs and provide options to you and your students,” Styler wrote on the district website.

According to V. Darleen Opfer, who holds the distinguished chair in education policy at RAND Corporation, the combination of online learning and time away from school present challenges to learning and retention.

“It particularly affects low-income students and students with special needs. Those students start kindergarten with achievement gaps already. The combination of existing achievement gaps and being out of school for a long period is going to exacerbate the situation,” Opfer said in a Q&A published on the research organization’s website.

“Our research on online learning shows that these programs do not do as well as face-to-face programs, and that’s assuming that students have access to them to begin with.” — V. Darleen Opfer, vice president and director of RAND Education and Labor.

“Our research on online learning shows that these programs do not do as well as face-to-face programs. And that’s assuming that students have access to them to begin with,” said Opfer, vice president and director of RAND Education and Labor.

More than half of the students in Millard School District are considered economically disadvantaged. The school district spans some 6,800 square miles and 60% of students are bused. Some spend nearly two hours a day traveling to and from school.

When the school closures started, the district parked some of its Wi-Fi-equipped buses in remote areas of the district that officials believed would best serve their students. The district estimates that about 14% of its 3,000 students do not have internet access at home.

Once the district determined internet use in some locations was minimal, it retrieved the buses. In other cases, families found alternatives.

The district is working to ensure students have access to services they need, but Styler said the situation is not optimal for anyone.

He is particularly concerned how high school seniors are coping with the disruption to their final year of school.

“Our seniors are having a hard time. We keep hearing that from multiple sources, lots of parents. This is a tough way for seniors to end their high school career, to end their education. A lot of them are struggling with some mental health issues. It’s just hard for them to not have that last opportunity to be with their friends, to be in their schools, to have their last activities whether it’s sports or drama, or whatever those are,” he said.

School counselors are checking in on seniors to find out how they’re coping and to help keep them on track for completing their high school credits and moving on to postsecondary education, he said.

“We just hope that those those things aren’t being lost in the cracks,” said Styler, Utah’s Superintendent of the Year for the 2017-18 school year.

He acknowledges that schools are asking a lot of students, most of whom for the first time are responsible for their learning. It’s sort of like what college students experience when they leave home for the first time, he said.

“A lot of times our kids go away to college and they aren’t fully prepared to be self-directed learners and they struggle and have troubles that first quarter. We’re battling through a little bit of that in this suspension of school because some of the kids are more self-directed than others. We’re trying to get hold of those kids and their parents and say, ‘Look, you can’t let this slide too far. You’re gonna get yourself in the hole,’ but it’s easier said than done,” he said.

Meanwhile, parents of younger students have been pressed into the roles of tutors and facilitators, with many learning to navigate educational technology on the fly.

Styler said teachers “jumped in with both feet” to quickly prepare high-quality lessons online once they learned school had been dismissed. Some are using video conferencing platforms to interact with students.

“It’s been awesome. It’s been incredible to see the things that teachers are doing,” he said, but all acknowledge that digital learning is no substitute for face-to-face instruction.

“We recognize that this isn’t going to be 100%. I mean, there’s no way this can be 100% of what these kids are going to get in the classroom. But they can get maybe 70% or better there, they still keep moving forward,” Styler said.

“Obviously it’s not the best but it certainly beats the kids sitting at home doing nothing. Because of the dedication of the teachers just to make sure that those kids aren’t forgotten and that they’re not left out of education, they’re still having some opportunity to move forward.”

Styler had high praise for the district’s support staff, too.

“We’ve been serving 4,000 meals a day to students and families and we have 3,000 kids. We’re doing breakfast and lunch and these lunch ladies are working harder than they ever had before,” Styler said.

The district’s instructional assistants and bus drivers have also chipped in to make sure meals are delivered to students.

“The whole education community has worked so hard and it’s just an impressive impressive thing to watch,” he said.

The district is on spring break until April 15, which will be a welcome respite for all, Styler said.

“This is hard on kids. It’s hard on parents. Everyone is being worn down a little bit by this. To have that break now, I’m glad because some schools had theirs even before this began.

“It will help,” he said.