Digital divide drives new broadband expansion efforts

In some rural communities, connectivity isn't available even to families who can afford it
By: | April 24, 2020
More students may soon get WiFi and broadband access as bipartisan support is growing for an $2 billion school connectivity package ( Images)More students may soon get WiFi and broadband access as bipartisan support is growing for an $2 billion school connectivity package ( Images)

Even the students in rural Gilmer County, West Virginia, who have WiFi or broadband internet access at home sometimes get caught on the wrong side of the digital divide when the weather’s bad.

And students learning remotely without connectivity can snap a picture of a completed homework packet and, if they can find a way to share it with teachers, they get a boost in their grade.

Students aren’t penalized if they can’t take or send a photo since district leaders decided it was no longer safe for teachers or staff to collect the homework packets in person, says Kelly Barr, a 7th-grade math teacher at Gilmer County High School.

“We can’t do remote learning online—we have students who don’t have internet or their internet is so poor that it goes out when it’s raining,” says Barr, who has also been a presenter at District Administration’s Future of Education Technology Conference®. “Hopefully, this situation will shed light on the digital divide we’re dealing with.”

More from DA: How to get students online without MiFi hotspots

In South Carolina, all students in the rural Allendale County School District received iPads. But some children have not been able to participate in online learning because they can’t get internet access or don’t have sufficient bandwidth at their home, Superintendent Margaret Gilmore says.

The state helped the district convert nine buses into WiFi hotspots. The vehicles are now parked throughout the large county to provide internet access.

“It’s almost immoral and unethical for a community not to have these resources that they need in order to survive,” says Gilmore, a member of the District Administration Leadership Institute.

Will WiFi win more stimulus?

The plight of these students during coronavirus school closures—and the possibility of disruptions next school year—has given renewed momentum to national efforts to close the digital divide.

In fact, the Centers for Diseases Control has made reliable connectivity for students one of its prerequisites for reopening states and communities, as the agency also expects schools will have to close intermittently in 2020-2021.

More from DA: Digital equity—solving the technology issue through collaboration

In recent days, bipartisan political support has built behind creating an emergency relief fund to connect students, says Evan Marwell, founder and CEO of EducationSuperHighway, a nonprofit that has been bringing broadband connectivity to schools.

Democrats have proposed a $2 billion “technology-neutral” program that would allow school leaders to choose how to connect students.

Marwell says the most effective solution would be to help families get home access from internet providers who are now offering free and low-cost service.

Schools could also distribute more mobile hotspots, but there aren’t enough of those devices to serve the 9 million students who lack access.

A sticking point right now is whether to the funnel an emergency fund through the E-Rate program, an approach that Democrats have pushed for but which Republicans have so far opposed, Marwell says.

Regardless, online learning will likely essential for the foreseeable future. “Even if schools are open in the fall, they might be partially open or they might have to close for periods of time or might have to stagger schedules,” Marwell says.

A major infrastructure initiative to build out the nation’s broadband network to rural America and other disconnected communities has also gained bipartisan support, albeit more modestly.

But such a wide-scale project, which could cost around $80 billion in new fiber optic cable and other infrastructure, probably isn’t going to be approved in the near future, he says.

DA’s coronavirus page offers complete coverage of the impacts on K-12.

Interested in edtech? Keep up with DA's Future of Education Technology Conference®.