HASTINGS, Minn. — In an effort to curb achievement and technology gaps amidst increasing digital classes, Hastings schools are launching laptops and internet hotspots for students to check out.

Funded through local foundations and grants, the "technology carts" are aimed to be used by students without access to technology at home, whether that be actual devices or internet access. According to surveys done, roughly 17% of students in the high school were without access to one of those two, said Hastings High School Principal Mike Johnson.

"Four or five years ago we started really getting into online curriculum," he said. "We started learning that here in Hastings there are students who don't have access at home."

Johnson said he envisions the soon-to-be available technology to cut down on the district's gaps in its honors classes and other academic measures for students of color or with a lower socioeconomic status than others.

For instance, the high school has about 52% of its white students who are not on free and reduced lunch in an honors class, but that number drops to 36% for black students and to 25% of American Indian students, he said.

"We're seeing there's a difference between students of color in terms of their enrollment in honor classes and the socioeconomics for the ability to afford technology," Johnson said. "That's just a fact."

He said the tech will not only increase accessibility, but will improve the quality of education the students are getting as well, he said.

"It's certainly engaging for a student to use a digital device," Johnson said, and mentioned it could be used for research or to watch a video on how to fix a carburetor for a shop class.

While the district acquired the laptops and hotspots in an effort to improve the district's racially- and economic-based achievement gap, Johnson said they aren't putting parameters on who can or can't check them out.

Instead, he believes the district's families and students will understand their purpose and let those with the highest need take priority.

"We don't want to say to no to students ... we don't want to go down that road," Johnson said. "I think if we share that compelling reason, they'll get it."

The technology will also assist in the district's e-learning policy, which was approved earlier this year and will be in effect for the first time. That policy put in place an online classroom framework for teachers and students to follow in the event of a snow day — in part prompted after students missed nine days during last school year's harsh winter.

That policy still allows for pre-arrangements to be made for paper versions of assignments and lessons, if the snow day is made in advance.

In an August school board meeting, Jenn Reichel, the district's director of teaching and learning, said the check-out process for the tech was still being determined.

Johnson said that is largely still the case, with the district taking a wait-and-see approach on the demand for e-learning days or for general class work. If there's higher demand than what is available, he expects the district would look into purchasing more to increase availability, he said.

"We don't know if five students or 300 will want to," he said.