With classes staying online for now, officials are working to arrange new Internet options in the neediest communities.
BELLE GLADE – He loved his science class, tolerated math and dreamed of being a marine biologist. But when Angel Sanchez’s high school abruptly moved online in March, the teen’s enthusiasm was no match for the challenge.
The Glades Central High freshman lacked regular Internet access at home. Tuning into his virtual classes meant relying on the erratic wireless “hot spot” from his parents’ cell phone or catching a ride to his grandmother’s house.
Missing half of his classes each week, 14-year-old Angel saw his grades fall during the first months of the pandemic, particularly in honors-level Algebra, which he said he failed in the final grading period.
“I try to not hold it against myself,” he said. “Because it was not my fault necessarily. I pretty much accepted it, more than anything.”
With Palm Beach County’s public schools planning to remain online-only when classes resume next month, educators will struggle again to reach thousands of students like Angel – students eager to learn but lacking reliable Internet access.
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During the two months of distance learning this spring, nearly 2,000 students failed to log on at all to the school district’s online portal.
Those left behind by the switch to digital classrooms live throughout the county, concentrated most heavily in poor neighborhoods in Lake Worth, Riviera Beach and the western Glades region, district records show.
But for every student who vanished entirely, there were untold others like Angel, managing to log on just enough to watch their academic performance plummet.
At their home in the Lake Harbor neighborhood outside Belle Glade, Angel and his two younger brothers would take turns using his parents’ cell phone hot spot to get online. Monthly limits on their data use meant the access never lasted long.
“I’d spend, like, 10 minutes on it and then pass the computer on to my younger siblings,” he recalled.
Whenever the Wi-Fi service ran out, his only recourse was his grandmother’s house across town, which he typically visited once a week.
It was an awkward ritual – dropping in, sitting through his classes, lingering the rest of the day until a parent picked him up. But it was the closest thing he had to a stable online-learning environment.
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The fact that digital access emerged as one of the largest obstacles to learning this spring was little surprise to school leaders.
Around the nation, the pivot to online classrooms has cast tremendous new attention on the so-called “digital divide” between children with computers and high-speed Internet at home and those without.
But it was a frustrating blow nonetheless to administrators who distributed more than 60,000 laptop computers and tablets to students, only to see many rendered useless by a lack of connectivity.
“The problem that was more challenging was the Internet access and the quality of that Internet access,” said Mark Howard, the district’s chief of performance accountability.
District administrators estimate about 10% of the county’s 174,000 public school students live in homes that rely primarily on cell phones for Internet access.
That leaves them ill-prepared for schooling based largely on video-conference classes and online learning programs.
Keenly aware of the dilemma, county and school district officials have been working this summer to arrange new options in the neediest communities.
The most ambitious effort: a $10 million project to create permanent wireless networks in dozens of low-income neighborhoods.
The county project, paid for by money from the federal CARES Act passed by Congress in April, has the potential to provide free Internet access to thousands of needy households, officials say.
The new Wi-Fi networks will be set up at more than 60 public school campuses, with signal extenders installed at nearby intersections to push the network access deep into the surrounding neighborhoods, Howard said.
In the Glades region, cables are already being laid, officials say, and administrators hope that at least some of the Wi-Fi zones will be up and running by the Aug. 10 start of school.
But most are a long way from completion.
In the meantime, Howard said the district has acquired 450 Wi-Fi hot spot devices through donations and intends to install them throughout the Glades region, which includes Belle Glade, Pahokee and South Bay.
A separate program sponsored by the county Children’s Services Council will pay for additional families to receive Internet service through Comcast.
And for families that lack a computer for each student in their house, the district has ordered an additional 80,000 new computers.
None of the plans is a perfect solution, and they won’t reach every student, administrators concede. But they hope to significantly reduce the number of children struggling to get online.
“What we’re attempting, as a district and a community, is to tamp down as many of these barriers as we can and meet families with a series of solutions,” Howard said.
After weeks of trying, Angel’s family managed to get high-speed service installed at home in the final weeks of school.
By then, though, he had already missed so many Algebra lessons that his class grade never recovered.
His teacher would provide makeup work for lessons missed. But without the benefit of live classes, he said mastering complex new equations and concepts proved overwhelming.
“It’s when the teacher isn’t there to help explain it,” he said. “It’s more difficult to learn by myself.”
With more stable Internet access, he hopes for a better experience when he begins his sophomore year from home. He still dreams of being a marine biologist or zoologist.
And while his struggles last year still sting, he said he doesn’t fault his teachers.
“They tried their best,” he said.