Corey Shepherd teaches fifth-graders in rural Alaska in a school district the size of Indiana. The terrain there is so rural that only airplanes and snowmobiles connect the district’s 11 tiny villages.
Shepherd is one of more than 7,000 teachers in her state trying to make the most of teaching her students since the governor closed schools to in-person learning to stop the spread of the coronavirus. One method she isn’t relying on: online learning.
“Around half of my students have access to the internet on some device at home,” Shepherd said. “Internet service is very expensive in rural Alaska and comes with data caps. Internet service is also prone to interruptions due to weather.”
For those who already have service, there’s help: Across the nation, many internet providers have agreed to waive late fees and end disconnects for families in financial hardship. But millions without high-speed internet at home have been left to fend for themselves as governments shut down their school buildings and mandate distance learning.
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A study by Microsoft in 2018 estimated that about half of Americans – 163 million people – do not have high-speed internet at home.
Students in rural areas often find it impossible to connect to internet service at speeds that would allow conferencing or video streaming because internet providers haven’t extended the lines. Elsewhere, especially in urban districts with high concentrations of poor students, subscribing is too expensive.
The federal government’s nearly $2 trillion stimulus package doesn’t address this digital divide, even though nearly all American schools are closed. A $2 billion proposal from Democrats to help expand online access didn’t make it out of the Senate last week, according to Politico. A $50 million proposal from the Trump administration didn’t either.
School districts and teachers such as Shepherd are stepping up. With their close ties to their communities, educators are striving to maintain normalcy for their students in a time of crisis. Teachers, principals and superintendents are delivering take-home work, setting up mobile Wi-Fi hot spots and lobbying their states for broadband reform.
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Shepherd said most of her contact with her students in Alaska is now through telephone conferences. The school district prepared work packets for students to complete and skills workbooks for them to do by hand. And she’s challenging her students to go outside as much as possible.
The problem stretches beyond rural America. In Phoenix, three high school students were found huddled under a blanket outside a closed elementary school, the president of the city’s school board said. They couldn’t connect to the internet from home, so they camped out to access the school’s Wi-Fi to do their homework.
The district’s superintendent joined nearly 50 others from around Arizona in sending an open letter to state leaders asking for help.
“The only way for Arizona to educate its 1.1 million K-12 students during a statewide closure will be, primarily, through some form of online or virtual learning,” the superintendents wrote.
“Equitable access to technology (both devices and internet access) is already a major challenge. This crisis, however, will simply shed light on a major disparity that has long existed in Arizona.”
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They need broadband now. They’ve waited for years.
Tens of millions of people across the United States have waited for access to broadband internet for as long as their friends and loved ones in other places have enjoyed home service.
Congress declined to regulate the internet as a utility in 1996, a decision that means no agency can force providers to run broadband cables to homes or set pricing.
The Federal Communications Commission decided in the early 2000s not to regulate the internet as a telephone service, a decision that would take an act of Congress to change.
Instead of utility-type regulation, the FCC has spent hundreds of billions of dollars paying incentives to encourage internet service providers to improve access to rural areas. Often, that money does not require companies to offer speeds high enough to allow a videoconference or streaming a video.
Despite that spending, according to research on broadband usage by Microsoft, about half of Americans – 163 million – still did not have high-speed internet service at home in 2018. Many of those are families who can’t afford it or have chosen not to get it. But the FCC estimated in 2017 that at least 21 million Americans could not hook up because there were no connections nearby and there was no likelihood a company would provide one anytime soon.
When it comes to online learning, speed matters. Amelia Ross can do her schoolwork from home – she just has to make sure no one else is online first.
“We have internet,” Amelia said of her home in Milton, a hamlet in rural eastern Indiana. “It’s just very slow. If anybody else in the house is on the internet, it’s really hard to do things.”
Her oldest brother stayed at Butler University, which has also moved to online classes, so he wouldn’t have to share laggy internet service with Amelia and another brother.
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In Culberson County, Texas, about a two-hour drive from El Paso, Microsoft estimates that just 4% of the population uses the internet at broadband speeds. Local band director David Deluca knows what that means for his students.
“Probably less than half of my students have access to the internet when they’re away from school,” Deluca said. “Internet is available in our town. I have it in my little duplex, but many of our families either cannot afford it or choose to spend their money in different ways.”
In a town just outside Waco, Texas, high school teacher Tanya Snook is adjusting to classes that went online starting Monday. She doesn’t know how many of her 111 students have internet service at home, but she’s sure some of them don’t because they live in poverty.
“I am very worried about my students who don’t have laptops,” Snook said, “and I am trying to make sure all my work can be done from a phone.”
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‘Not even $1 billion’ in the stimulus to connect students
Congress could pay companies to extend high-speed lines as part of a stimulus package. The federal lawmakers did so in 2010, in an almost New Deal-like response to the Great Recession. But neither of the first two coronavirus relief bills that went through Congress addressed students’ access to broadband.
“I cannot understand how the U.S. Senate can approve a $2 trillion emergency package and not find even $1 billion to ensure that every school child in America can connect to the internet on a functioning device,” James P. Steyer, CEO of Common Sense, a nonprofit education advocacy group, said in a statement last week.
“Up to 12 million lower-income and many rural-based kids do not have adequate access to broadband or modern devices, impacting student outcomes and exacerbating economic inequality,” Steyer said. “Now that most American schoolkids must learn from home because of COVID-19, it is an even bigger problem.”
The stimulus bill, known as the CARES Act, provides $200 million to boost telehealth services. The FCC will have the authority to fund telehealth programs across the country quickly, freeing up inpatient capacity at hospitals, Chairman Ajit Pai said in a statement.
In his own statement, Commissioner Geoffrey Starks called on the FCC to provide its own “connectivity stimulus” to help bridge the digital divide for Americans, including schoolchildren. He said the FCC should assess its legal power and “take bold action to respond to the current crisis.”
Meanwhile, the FCC is extending a deadline to apply for a federal program called e-rate that helps schools and libraries afford to upgrade their connections. The FCC is also relaxing rules to allow the general public to use those connections.
Additionally, Pai has urged internet service providers to take the “Keep America Connected” pledge. Companies that take the pledge promise they won’t disconnect customers for nonpayment, will waive late fees, and will open Wi-Fi hot spots to the general public.
More than 300 companies have signed the pledge, which asks for a 60-day commitment. But it’s not clear whether the companies will take these steps because there is no way to enforce the pledge. A spokesman for the FCC declined an interview on Pai’s behalf.
Companies and schools take matters into their own hands
Without a government mandate, some of the nation’s largest internet service providers and the smallest public schools are helping low-income families connect amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Comcast, one of the largest providers in the country, is offering a package with 25 megabits-per-second download speeds and 3 megabits-per-second upload speeds, the threshold for high-speed internet service, for $9.95 a month. The company also is upgrading its other packages to those speeds.
Cox has introduced a no-contract plan for $19.99 a month designed for low-income customers. The downloading speed is up to 50 megabits per second. The company also will relax data caps for many of its existing customers.
Through June 30, Verizon is tripling the data allowances for tablets and laptops at school districts that receive federal grants because they serve large populations of low-income students. The company estimates 116,000 students will benefit.
In Abilene, Texas – where Microsoft says only 48% of the surrounding county is using broadband – school district administrators want to turn 25 school buses into mobile Wi-Fi hot spots. The equipment to complete the project had not yet been delivered last week.
In the meantime, the district installed a stationary hot spot – one of five total in the city and its immediate surroundings – in the parking lot of its football stadium, where students can pull up in a vehicle to connect to a Wi-Fi signal.
Dawn Sandhop teaches first grade in Washington state in a rural district where 8,700 students live spread across 400 square miles. In Grant County, where she lives, 40% of the population uses the internet at broadband speeds.
Sandhop said her school waited until March 23 – two weeks after the governor ordered the schools to close – to implement e-learning. The school had ordered mobile Wi-Fi hot spots for kids without internet at home, and the devices were on backorder.
Other districts are turning to paper.
In Parkston, South Dakota, the district surveyed families to find out which ones did not have internet access in order to design an e-learning program, according to superintendent Shayne McIntosh. The district found fewer than 10 families in that situation.
To serve those students, the district prints out hardcopies of work and puts them in packets for the students to do at home. Families pick up and drop off students’ work at the school, and if they can’t, a staff member will deliver.
After families turn the completed work back in, teachers wait 72 hours to grade it to make sure any virus on the schoolwork has died.
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Contributing: Arika Herron, The Indianapolis Star; Timothy Chipp, Abilene Reporter-News (Texas)