When Troy Kilzer received the U.S. Department of Education’s guidance Saturday night urging schools to continue learning for all students despite closures, he thought, “Well, that was a no brainer.”
But the director of schools for rural Chester County Schools in southwest Tennessee said providing accessible remote learning during the coronavirus outbreak that has shut down his six schools is more complicated.
“[Betsy DeVos’] assumption is that everybody sits with the same opportunities with the internet, with all the resources supporting technology, and thinks everyone is well supported with access,” Kilzer said. “And that is just so narrow minded to think that everybody is in that same shape.”
The guidance advised districts to opt for continued remote distance learning while offering additional special education services like counseling or instructional support over the phone or virtually. But out of the approximately 2,800 students and their families who are scattered across different providers' lines in Chester County, there are pockets of communities for which getting high-speed internet access and sometimes even phone services is out of the question.
Although the district has 2,900 devices ready for use, the nuances of provider and city politics, high costs and geographical challenges make it nearly impossible to use them in an equitable way.
“It’s kind of like taking one step forward and 10 steps back,” he said, adding having the devices to use but spotty-to-no-internet and phone connection for families is “like having a TV that you don’t plug in.”
While many families rely on the local provider, Aeneas, for high-speed internet, the company only serves within the city limits. Many of the district's families live outside that boundary, Kilzer said, meaning they depend on other providers like AT&T for access.
And, he added, those companies are much slower and more costly for even middle-to-upper-class families to be able to afford.
Hotspots 'still won't work'
While coronavirus-related closures have renewed a push to close the connectivity gap for communities like Chester County, Kilzer feels those initiatives are “disconnected” from the reality on the ground.
A proposal unveiled this week in the U.S. House of Representatives would funnel $2 billion into extra Wi-Fi hotspots for school and library use. Another proposal, the Homework Gap Trust Fund Act, introduced by Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Maryland) could also get connectivity funds into schools upon its passage "very quickly," his office said.
With the funds that could be immediately mobilized if that legislation passes, Jessica Rosenworcel, a member of the Federal Communications Commission, said the connectivity gap could be closed “virtually overnight.” Policy analysts and consultants agree the funds would make a dent in addressing the homework gap.
But even if these initiatives were to pass, there are some places where hotspots “still won’t work,” said John White, who was deputy assistant secretary for rural outreach at the U.S. Department of Education during the Obama administration and now offers consulting services with rural school districts around the country.
This would definitely help but it's not the silver bullet. Hotspots don't work in some remote rural homes. https://t.co/tyTEB8Hg1X— John White (@RuralED) March 24, 2020
This is the case for families in Polk County School District, another rural district in southeast Tennessee. Supervisor of Secondary Instruction Jason Bell said a Verizon Innovative Learning Schools grant that allowed 1:1 iPad access and 5GB of data per month in the district’s middle grades three years ago didn’t pan out as planned because students lived in areas without towers.
This means even with an iPad and a data plan, access for those students was out of the question.
And when the district explored the possibility of putting up Verizon towers years earlier, geographical challenges — specifically, a national forest that makes up approximately 65% of the district — got in the way.
Now, Verizon has bumped up access for the district’s middle school students from 5GB of data a month to 30GB during the coronavirus outbreak. The company and many others, such as AT&T, which FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has recently pushed to provide hotspots for schools, are offering similar discounted rates or expanded services nationwide to support remote learning.
“I am pleased with the responses I have received,” Pai said in a letter responding to Sen. Maria Cantwell’s (D-Washington) request to address the homework gap, citing providers that have increased broadband speeds and are offering it for free for up to two months.
Absent from the letter is a mention of towers for areas where hotspots, higher speeds and discounted rates still don’t solve the bigger problem.
“Folks just don’t have access to that,” Bell said. “If it’s somewhere where they literally can’t get it, it’s not a quick fix right there ... I wish we had set it up before this [pandemic] happened.”
For Kilzer, towers, which he says could cost the district “hundreds of thousands of dollars,” are out of the question as well. “I can’t just drop that much money when the main share of our resources are primarily-state funded and are coming to support our existing teachers, principals, support staff,” he explained.
While Kilzer said providers in his area are considering expanding services, those plans would take advantage of existing towers and maybe add lines to water towers to extend connectivity. “It’s not cost-neutral in any fashion,” he said. “And we don’t have the resources to drive that shift.”
Connectivity maps 'totally inaccurate'
Another part of the problem is that the federal government still doesn’t have a complete picture of which rural families do or don’t have access.
According to a report released Monday by the National 4-H Council and Microsoft, 20% of teenagers living in rural areas of the U.S. do not have access to high-speed, broadband internet, and 31% of U.S. households do not have a broadband connection.
Almost half of rural teens surveyed said they’ve struggled to complete homework due to slow internet. They were also less likely to feel like they belong or to be involved in social causes in their community.
Other reports show varying numbers in terms of household access.
“It's almost like you can never get a straight answer because it’s so hard to label what a rural district is,” Bell said, adding he has seen reports vary in how they define rural districts. “I think that skews that data sometimes.”
In an FCC subcommittee hearing earlier this month, Rosenworcel admitted “it’s a fact that the FCC’s broadband maps are totally inaccurate.” The maps are supposed to document where access is lacking.
“At the crux of the issue is one thing: The federal government does not collect that data,” said Karen Cator, the president and CEO of Digital Promise, who also led the Office of Education Technology at the Education Department Department President Barack Obama's first term. “If they updated those maps, then we would have a better sense of where we are.”
The department does not collect data on community connectivity, either. With schools learning from home for the foreseeable future, this could prove to be a problem.
“What’s happening right now is the country is facing what we have previously known as the homework gap, but now it’s not just homework — it’s the whole educational experience,” Cator said.
Solutions or 'Band-aids' on the problem?
For now, rural districts are doing everything from making phone calls to publishing letters in the newspaper to get the word out to families about meal distribution services and the use of traditional packets during distance learning, which in many areas is being made optional rather than mandatory due to unequal access.
Workarounds for families without access includes driving long distances to sit in the parking lots of libraries or McDonald's restaurants, where they can connect to the internet from their cars. But “that is not conducive to do the work,” according to Kilzer.
Allen Pratt, executive director of the National Rural Education Association, feels that is putting a “Band-aid on the situation.” And with shelter-in-place orders already in many states, even that remedy might not be possible for much longer.
“If we treat [connectivity] as a utility service, that’d be much more helpful,” Pratt said.
In Dundee Community Schools, located in southeast Michigan, Superintendent Eddie Manuszak said even with three providers triangulating in the area, there are still some “dead spots” in his district that don’t have access. Extending coverage to those areas through the providers would have cost an extra $28,000 annually.
“It’s not cheap,” he said.
The lack of towers, Manuszak said, is a problem districts in the northern peninsula of the state face. A recent Michigan State University report found approximately half of the students in the state's rural areas don't have high-speed internet access.
In the meantime, Dundee Community Schools has opted for Chromebooks, preferring the brand for its ability to save work even when offline and then sync once connected.
Others are trying to make do with what they can afford and are sending paper materials home alongside meals through bus delivery routes. Grab-and-go locations for pickup, considering long and winding roads in some areas, are not possible for some.
“We have just made recommendations to the families to read with their kids, do some math, with the expectation that we’re probably only addressing the small number of folks that have internet access,” Kilzer said. “We are feeling our way in the dark right now.”
Correction: In a previous version of this article, the numbers of students and devices in Chester County were misstated. There are 2,800 students and 2,900 available devices.