NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Educators have worried for years about the “homework gap,” where students without high-speed internet access at home earn lower grades and are less likely to attend college.
Three of the states with the lowest levels of high-speed internet access are in the Deep South: Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi.
As a new school year begins, and the coronavirus pandemic has forced most schools to teach at least partially online, students who lack internet access aren’t just in danger of falling behind — they could be left out.
When the pandemic sent students home in March, many schools scrambled to set up online classes with unfamiliar software for students who often lacked computers. Now, five months later, the schools are prepared and students better equipped, but gaps remain.
‘LEARNING PODS' IN LOUISANA
Louisiana, like other states across the country, used money from the federal CARES Act to buy laptops and provide internet access to public school students. After sending $316 million to state school districts, roughly 60,000 more Louisiana students are now connected to the internet.
“But that’s costly, and those connections are sometimes temporary, because they’re being financed by school systems in many cases,” said Louisiana State Superintendent Cade Brumley.
Despite that progress over the summer, 1 out of 4 Louisiana students still lack broadband access. Brumley hopes that number will soon improve with the arrival of more equipment, backordered due to supply chain issues caused by COVID-19 and the demand from schools across the country.
The city of New Orleans, where public schools remain virtual at least through mid-September, has managed to connect all but about 5% of its students to the internet, or roughly 2,500 kids. Financial difficulties have been the impediment for the majority of those remaining students.
Emily Wolff, who directs the mayor’s Office of Youth and Families, saw how wealthy parents were creating “learning pods,” hiring teachers to work with a small group of kids. The example inspired her to find a way to offer New Orleans students who still lacked internet access a free place to gather and connect.
Working with both the library system and the recreation department, Wolff’s department created “pods” where students, adhering to social distancing recommendations, could attend school virtually.
“There’s no direct instruction. The supervisor is there to help troubleshoot tech issues, encourage students or maybe answer one or two simple academic questions,” Wolff said.
More than 1,000 families expressed interest in the city’s learning “pods.” About 175 students are part of a pilot program at four locations, although the city plans to open more pods, she said.
‘EVERYONE IS SCRAMBLING’ FOR A FIX
In many rural areas of the South, internet access is limited, expensive or unavailable, not just for students but for everyone.
“We are a small district in central Mississippi in the middle of nowhere,” said Tyler C. Hansford, superintendent of the Union Public School District. “We have broadband in the city, but the bulk of our students live outside the city limits.”
Some students rely on cell phone “hot spots,” but streaming a video classroom can quickly use up a data plan. And some remote areas do not have cell phone coverage.
“I think everyone is scrambling to figure out how to fix this,” Hansford said. “You can’t snap your fingers and run fiber through rural Mississippi.”
Wennoa Peebles, who lives in Jena, Alabama in the rural Black Belt, spends $169 a month for a satellite internet service so that her two boys, one in 3rd grade and the other starting high school, can keep up with their studies. But something as simple as a change in weather can cause the satellite connection to fail.
“When it’s an act of God, there’s nothing you can do,” Peebles said about the inevitable connection issues for virtual classes.
Districts in all three states are equipping buses with WiFi and taking the signal to the students.
Some schools have parked the buses outside public facilities where students can sit while maintaining social distances. In other cases, students have to do the work in their cars parked around the bus.
Either way, they need transportation, which is not equally accessible to all students.
“It’s a piecemeal approach, but it’s the best way to address the variety of circumstances people face,” said Allen Pratt, executive director of the National Rural Education Association.
TECH ACCESS VS. TECHNICAL LITERACY
When in-person classes are available, superintendents have said they are giving priority to students who lack internet access. Some districts also plan to load lessons onto USB flash drives, which a student would exchange every few weeks.
Teachers had to learn almost overnight how to teach remotely. For many parents, navigating the new technology was also challenging, with language barriers sometimes adding more problems.
“You have the tech access, and then you have the technical literacy issues. We’re thinking about folks who hadn’t normally had that. So we’re talking about poor Black and brown folks,” said Mary Moran, executive director of the organization Our Voice Nuestra Voz that supports New Orleans parents.
Many of the families Our Voice Nuesta Voz works with are Spanish speakers. Finding someone who can help them with the new technology in their own language has been hard.
“I believe it’s a desire of them to have equity,” Moran said, “but it’s hard to believe that they really mean it when they’re not taking language access seriously.”
Nelsa David, a Spanish speaker, has two daughters, one who is starting high school this semester in New Orleans. Before the coronavirus pandemic, technology was not part of her older daughter’s education. Now it is essential.
Still, even after classes began virtually, David still had no laptop for her daughter. The school told David she had incorrectly filled out the form to request a computer, but her email seeking help was not answered.
“Nobody gave us an orientation. I don’t think they had time for a chat on how to use the technology. They don’t want to take the time to find someone to help us in Spanish,” David said.
A study from the Quello Center at Michigan State University, released March 3 before the pandemic, found that students with high-speed internet access at home had an average 3.18 GPA while those without access had an average 2.81 GPA. Similar to other systems, including health care, the pandemic has revealed access issues across geographic and socioeconomic lines.
Like so many problems in America, the coronavirus both exposed the issue of internet access and exacerbated it.
“I hope politicians and elected officials realize the necessity for broadband after this pandemic,” said Corey Jones, superintendent of the Alabama’s Greene County School System in a rural, western part of the state. “I equate it to electricity at the turn of the century. If you’re not connected to the internet, you’re isolated from a large portion of the world.”