A young student works in his classroom on an iPad made possible by the Student Tech Connect Fund. PHOTOS COURTESY BEAUFORT COUNTY SCHOOL DISTRICT

It took a village to put technology into the hands of Beaufort County’s youngest students this year.

The Student Tech Connect Fund, initiated by the All Saints Episcopal Church outreach coordinator, and established through donations with the Community Foundation of the Lowcountry, provided 753 iPads to pre-kindergarten and early childhood special education students.

Jean Heyduck, the foundation’s vice president for marketing and communications, said the fund was able to supply the mobile devices for those not covered when the Beaufort County School District went to virtual learning.

“It was more than just iPads. This fund has done a number of things. It helped connect families to the internet who were unable to connect,” said Heyduck. “The fund also purchased special cameras for Hilton Head High School. These cameras follow the instructors around the classroom while they demonstrate things. Those cameras can be used for a variety of things, even after the kids are all back in the classroom.”

All Saints, the Hilton Head MLK Committee for Justice, Hargray Communications, and several other groups, along with some generous individual donors, were involved, she said.

“They were really the impetus, asking what they could do during the period when the kids were having all these challenges,” Heyduck said. “They were worried about the lack of connectivity and the affect the pandemic was having on learning.”

Carol Grish, who is the All Saints outreach coordinator and also is on the board of the MLK committee, said that the movement to increase connectivity began in the spring of 2020 when committee members learned that a number of Hilton Head students were not participating in school. The primary reason was that although the district had distributed laptops to each student, many had no internet connection.

“The MLK Committee learned that Verizon Hot Spots were available for those with no connections, but the hot spots worked off of cell phones. If there was spotty cell coverage, then there were no connections,” said Grish.

Teaming up with Hargray Communications, she applied for a grant through the National Episcopal Church Beloved Community program and received a grant for $8,000 to expand the internet coverage. Hargray has a special rate for families on the free or reduced lunch program.

“While we were waiting for the grant, the MLK Committee started to advertise this activity, and donations started pouring in,” Grish said. “It became clear that we were not prepared to deal with all these donations, so I went to Community Foundation of the Lowcountry to see if they would help. They identified a fund that we could use called the Student Tech Connect Fund.”

One of the things the committees learned was that school Superintendent Frank Rodriguez wanted to get devices into the hands of the kindergartners, who did not receive any devices when the laptops were handed out. Grish said when they found this out, a donor at Community Foundation of the Lowcountry offered to provide those, and that was how the youngest scholars got their own devices.

Grish said they are still adding families and accepting donations, and the MLK Committee is still advertising the need. The additional donations have enabled the fund to provide more resources.

Once some students began returning to school, Hilton Head Island High School asked if the Student Tech Connect Fund could provide their teachers with classroom cameras so that students still learning from home could follow as the teacher moved around the room. The fund bought 67 cameras, one for each teacher.

The fund’s mission is to provide the technology resources to make sure the students – especially those from low-income households – have the tools they need, and the connectivity to participate in school.

Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.