HAUSER — When schools went online last spring, Jessica Meade knew the internet in her rural home wasn't going to cut it for classes. So she started bringing her kids to her salon, temporarily closed due to virus restrictions, to use the WiFi.

But Meade's salon is open again, which means her students can't keep using the space for its internet access.

"We live very far out of town, where internet access is not available to us by a couple of the major networks here in town — and certainly not enough where we could live stream the teacher like we need to every day, every period for classes," Meade said.

Instead, she called Wade Lester, the vice principal at North Bend Middle School, and told him that the setup wasn't going to work. Since then, he's tried to tackle one of the most challenging parts of pandemic learning in rural areas: How do you manage online learning if your internet isn't very good?

His answer: A distance learning outpost. With the help of a team of community partners, Lester set up spaces where students could be dropped off, attend their online sessions in the morning and head home for the afternoon.

The program is all free, and students who attend get lunch and a breakfast for the next day to take home with them. One of the district's educational assistants staffs the space to make sure students get logged in to their class sessions, too. 

"I think it's great what Wade (Lester) came up with," said Meade, whose daughter attended the program. "I think that's a great option for kids now, and I think for them to be around and to be socialized a little bit, and to be able to go there and get their education is really important."

The site is a team effort of community partners: The Lakeside Public Library and Hauser Community Church offered space to use. McKay's in Lakeside donated cleaning supplies to keep students safe. Wagon Wheel Grocery put up fliers to spread the word.

Hennick's Lakeside Lumber even got to work to support the effort — the store made a few dozen wood partitions that can be put up between students.

"I know last spring was rough on families in the Hauser and Lakeside areas," Lester said of the effort.

But the program isn't perfect — without a couple more students in attendance, Lester said the district might not be able to continue dedicating staff time to support the effort.

A key problem is that the district doesn't have enough buses to provide transportation, so parents have to drop off and pick up their kids to get them to the program, Lester said.

That's why Meade stopped bringing her daughter to the church every day for internet access. Once the family got the chance to improve their internet service at home, she couldn't justify cancelling on clients each day to go to the church for pick up and drop off.

"I'd like them to go be in school, I'd like them to be socializing with peers," Meade said. "They've been home since March, and being social is part of their education."

Lester said another challenge is age-old: Parents have a hard time getting their students out of bed in time. That can be even harder if grandparents or other family members are taking care of students while parents are at work.

"I think they're tired of arguing with their kids," Lester said. "Getting out of bed, that's a battle."

Still, Lester says he's proud of how the district has handled online learning, and that online learning in the fall is going better than it was last spring. Now, students are more accountable for attendance and grades, meaning there's more structure to online learning.

Outfitted with a school district-branded face mask, Michelle Johnson was the educational assistant staffing the Hauser church site on Wednesday. From what she's seen, teacher creativity coupled with the online learning technology have helped the year go smoothly.

"It's amazing, the technology," Johnson said, pointing to her laptop screen, displaying the online class she was sitting in on. Students had just practiced calculating an object's speed by rolling an item — like a toy car — across the floor at home.

"The kids are better at the technology than most of us are."

The technology, however, requires the quality internet that isn't a given for many who are farther away from town. That's a problem Lester hopes his outpost can solve.

"Everybody here is ready to step up and help," he said.

Families who are interested in having their students attend the program should call Wade Lester at 541-751-7283. The program runs from around 9 a.m. to noon, and is currently taking place in the Hauser Community Church at 69411 Wildwood Road.

Reporter Zack Demars can be reached at worldnews3@countrymedia.net.

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