Helping the island connect

Fri, 05/01/2020 - 10:30am

The staff at the Island Free Library, understanding that there was inequality throughout the island in terms of being able to connect to the internet, had placed an order of new “hotspots” in order to even things out.

“We started brainstorming a hotspot program probably close to a year ago,” said Library Director Kristin Baumann. “We wanted to run a pilot program across the island that could potentially inform local decision-makers, residents, and visitors about viable, doable, affordable options for internet connectivity.”

Baumann said the idea to connect island students with hotspots then went into the planning stage back in February.

“We were planning on giving every high school household a hotspot,” said Baumann. “The intention was to spread them out across the island, assist the high school students with their studies, PSAT/SAT prep work, college applications, and job searches. We figured the lower grades would do less online schoolwork and less internet research, so we were targeting the high school students.”

Baumann said that after the school year ended, the plan was to collect them from the students and have them available for local businesses to test during the summer.

“Again, our intention was to loan the hotspots out across the island and for various uses to determine if they were a viable solution — short term — until the second phase of the broadband project came to fruition or long term, as an alternative to phase two,” said Baumann.

Then, she said, came COVID-19.

Now, Baumann said, “we have provided over 25 hotspots to Block Island School students, as well as a few teachers.” Baumann said she worked with Principal Kristine Monje “to distribute them to households in need. Prior to that mass distribution, we selected a few households to test the hotspots to make sure the set-up by the library was functioning. At first it took me about 20 minutes per hotspot for set-up, now I can do one in less than 10 minutes.”

After making sure the school community had what they needed, the next group was sent out to college students.

“Some I knew were in need because they were in the library parking lot taking classes. We started reaching out to families that we knew had college students home and we sent some out to people who are in the far reaches of the island, again to keep testing their potential —where they would work and how well they would work.” The third phase of the distribution was for town employees.

“We have already had requests from two town hall employees,” said Baumann. “I imagine there will be more.”

Baumann said she has heard back from families saying they were able to watch a Netflix movie together for the first time because of the hotspot, and one high school student said, “You changed my life.”