The Morning Call (Sunday)
Rural students’ hurdle: logging on
Lack of reliable internet service hinders learning
Shekinah and Orlandria Lennon were sitting at their kitchen table this fall, taking online classes, when video of their teachers and fellow students suddenly froze on their laptop screens. The wireless antenna on the roof had stopped working, and it couldn’t be fixed.
Desperate for a solution, their mother called five broadband companies, trying to get connections for their home in Orrum, North Carolina, a rural community of fewer than 100 people with no grocery store or traffic lights.
All the companies gave the same answer: Service is not available in your area.
The response is the same across broad stretches of Robeson County, North Carolina, a swath of small towns and rural places like Orrum dotted among soybean fields and hog farms. About 20,000 of the county’s homes, or 43% of all households, have no internet connection.
The technology gap has prompted teachers to upload lessons on flash drives and send them home to dozens of students every other week. Some children spend school nights crashing at more connected relatives’ homes so they can get online for classes the next day.
“It’s not fair,” said Shekinah, 17, who, after weeks trying to stay connected to classes through her cellphone, was finally able to get online regularly again last month through a Wi-Fi hot spot provided by the school. “I don’t think just the people who live in
the city should have internet. We need it in the country, too.”
Millions of American students are grappling with the same challenges, learning remotely without adequate home internet service. Even as school districts like the one in Robeson County have scrambled to provide students with laptops, many who live in low-income and rural communities continue to have difficulty logging on.
About 6 million K-12 students lived in households without adequate online connectivity in 2018, according to a study of federal data by Common Sense Media, an education nonprofit
that tracks children’s media use.
Before the coronavirus, that was mainly an obstacle for students doing homework, and it was an issue that state and federal officials struggled to address. But the pandemic turned the lack of internet connectivity into a nationwide emergency: Suddenly, millions of schoolchildren were cut off from digital learning, unable to maintain virtual “attendance” and marooned socially from their classmates.
The Trump administration has done little to expand broadband access for students, both before and during the pandemic,
said James Steyer, chief executive of Common Sense Media. “There was no federal strategy, and it was left to the individual states to come up with a patchwork of solutions,” he said.
When Congress passed a coronavirus relief package in March, it provided billions of dollars for emergency education needs but none specifically for closing the digital divide. Despite advocacy from groups including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Steyer said, Republican leaders in Congress blocked efforts to add such funds.
“The tragedy is, this is not a Democratic or Republican prob
lem,” Steyer said. “It is simply not fair that a poor family in a rural area or a low-income urban area does not have the resources to send their kids to school in this pandemic.”
Desperate for workarounds, schools across the country have scrambled to distribute mobile hot spots and internet-equipped iPads. Districts from Wisconsin to Kansas to Alabama have transformed idle school buses into roving Wi-Fi vehicles that park in neighborhoods so students can sit nearby and log in to classes.
The challenge of closing the digital divide can be daunting in states like North Carolina, home to the nation’s second-largest rural population and a geography that spans mountains and barrier islands.
About 100,000 of the state’s 1.5 million K-12 students were unable to connect to online services in August, according to the Department of Information Technology. More than 75,300 cellular hot spots were provided to schools by late October, and the state is trying to connect other students with public Wi-Fi locations and community grants for broadband infrastructure.
But politics has also hampered the state’s connectivity. In 2016, Republican state lawmakers won a legal battle to halt the spread of municipal broadband providers, which had increased competition by serving residents where commercial networks were unwilling to go.
In Orange County, which is home to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and just west of some of the state’s biggest cities, more than 5,200 households lack broadband internet access, including an estimated 1,100 students in the local school district, said Monique Felder, the superintendent.
She noted with frustration that the district is just a few miles away from the state’s prominent Research Triangle Park, where IBM, Cisco and dozens of other information technology companies employ thousands of people.
“It’s un-American,” said Felder, who pointed to unaffordable pricing and a lack of cell towers as having contributed to the problem. “I can’t wrap my head around the fact that we live in a place where you have all this technology, yet we have families who can’t access the internet in the comfort of their home.”