LAFAYETTE – Thursday, Mike Pinto, principal of James Cole Elementary, tweeted a photo outside the building showing several picnic tables set up around the school grounds.

“The Cole Outdoor Internet Cafe is open for classroom business!” Pinto posted. “Rethinking our approach.”

The school’s “outdoor internet cafe” is possible thanks to a partnership between Tippecanoe School Corp. and Wintek/Tipmont, which offers outdoor TSC WiFi locations at 14 locations, including Cole Elementary, and free, public WiFi at four other TSC schools.

The outdoor WiFi access at Cole Elementary allows students inside the school building to have a “mask break” during the day, while still learning and staying socially distanced. It also provides a means for parents and students to download or access any documents needed for virtual work, whether they are e-learning full time or preparing for one of the school district’s planned virtual days.

“In this day and age, in order to do life, we have to have an internet connection,” Pinto said. “This allows access to the world that is not limited to where someone lives. It’s crucial to the students we serve in school and in the community.”

The partnership to install WiFi at TSC’s elementary and middle schools first began in the spring, after schools were forced to stop in-person classes due to the coronavirus pandemic. Devin Arms, TSC’s director of technology, said Wintek/Tipmont, which the school district uses as its internet provider, approached and asked if TSC was interested in a partnership to install outdoor antennas beginning with four schools.

Wintek/Tipmont donated the equipment, and TSC paid for the instillation of the antennas.

As the pandemic progressed, Arms said he recognized that remote learning would continue to take place in various forms, and outdoor antennas were installed at the remaining 14 schools.

The district’s two high schools, Harrison and McCutcheon, currently do not have outdoor antennas near their parking lots for WiFi access due to ongoing renovations on both buildings, but Arms said he hopes to eventually add them as well.

“Our rural areas are notoriously underserved when it comes to broadband internet,” Arms said. “The pandemic shined a spotlight on that here and across the state.”

Arms said initial data of how frequently the outdoor WiFi is not yet available, but Wainwright Middle School, located near Cole Elementary on the edge of Tippecanoe County, has seen students and parents accessing the WiFi for remote school work.

TSC’s website provides maps of each of the schools and where to access the outdoor internet.

Around Tippecanoe County, in areas where families may not be able to access or afford a high-speed connection, other options exist or have emerged to help fill those needs.

Those include: Camp Tecumseh YMCA, which is offering one, three and five day-a-week programs for students who are e-learning full time, called “eLearn at Camp.” The camp is providing a space and resources for students to learn with reliable internet, as well as non-school related activities. 

West Lafayette Public Library still has a 30-minute limit inside its buildings, and library director Nick Schenkel said the library has seen few students at either the K-12 or college level using the building’s internet services. However, checkouts of the available wireless hotspots have increased over the past few weeks, Schenkel said.

Tipmont REMC, which has other public WiFi offerings inside Tippecanoe County including in the downtown Lafayette area, received over $16 million in grants from the second phase of the Next Level Connections program, which will provide fiber internet service to over 2,200 homes, businesses and anchor institutions in Tippecanoe, Clinton, Fountain, Montgomery and White counties, according to a release.

Arms said that thinking beyond the pandemic, he hopes the outdoor WiFi will continue to be used and useful for the community.

“Access to internet, in our view, is essential,” Arms said. “Similar to electricity, water or gas, it’s a critical utility in our eyes, especially with education. So much of what we make available to students, even pre-COVID requires access to technology. While we’re not in a position to build out WiFi into parts of our community, expanding those options on our school campuses was a realistic option.”

TSC Outdoor WiFi

  • Free, public access: Klondike Elementary, East Tipp Middle, Southwestern Middle and Wainwright Middle
  • TSC WiFi networks only: Battle Ground Elementary, Battle Ground Intermediate, Battle Ground Middle, Burnett Creek Elementary, Cole Elementary, Dayton Elementary, Hershey Elementary, Klondike Middle, Mayflower Mill Elementary, Mintonye Elementary, Wea Ridge Elementary, Wea Ridge Middle Woodland Elementary and Wyandotte Elementary

Emily DeLetter is a news reporter for the Journal & Courier. Contact her at (765) 201-8515 or via email at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter at @EmilyDeLetter.

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