Sep 30 2020

A Struggle of Online Learning: Too Remote to Connect

K–12 leaders invest in technology and form partnerships to ensure students in rural areas have Wi-Fi access and devices needed for remote learning.

IT staff at Beekmantown Central School District in upstate New York spent six years working on a digital transformation that involved equipping students with Chromebooks, providing professional development to teachers and letting students borrow Wi-Fi hotspots. Then in February, as cases of COVID-19 erupted around the globe, Superintendent Dan Mannix gave the team three weeks to develop a distance-learning plan.

They were ready.

“At first blush, the directive sounded like it would be daunting, but when we talked it out, we quickly realized we already had the pieces in place to make learning successful outside of school,” says Gary Lambert, who oversees technology as BCSD’s director of 21st century learning.

Many other U.S. schools weren’t as prepared, including many in rural areas such as Beekmantown. Administrators scrambled to implement virtual instruction — a struggle that underscored long-standing disparities in access to reliable, high-speed internet connections and computing devices, particularly for students from rural areas and low-income families.

School Administrators Hone in on Digital Equity

An estimated 9.3 million students — or 1 in 5 — attend rural schools, according to the Rural School and Community Trust. About 18 percent of households with school-age children lack broadband access at home.

Administrators at rural districts that seamlessly pivoted to remote learning say they have spent years tackling the digital divide by launching one-to-one computing initiatives and working to ensure students have reliable internet access. They deployed multiple broadband strategies, such as loaning students Wi-Fi hotspots, strategically locating school buses equipped with hotspots, keeping school buildings open longer, beefing up Wi-Fi signals in school parking lots and partnering with local businesses to allow students to use their internet access and space for studying. Some internet service providers offered free or discounted access to families that couldn’t afford it.

“The districts that have been thinking about this for a while and have made strides to address student access to devices and the internet are in really good shape. But there are different levels of struggle and different levels of OK,” says Beth Holland, digital equity and rural project director at the Consortium for School Networking.

Those common efforts to boost digital equity are good short-term fixes, says Holland, who is also a partner at The Learning Accelerator. But the efforts won’t work for all rural communities; some lack broadband access and cellphone signals, rendering hotspots useless, and some are so remote that it is hard for families and teachers to travel for Wi-Fi access.

9.3 million

The number of students who attend rural schools

Source: Source: The Rural School and Community Trust, “Why Rural Matters 2018-2019,” November 2019

How School Districts Are Covering Wi-Fi Gaps

Before BCSD implemented full-time remote learning, CIO Rick Gangwer and his team ensured every teacher and student had a mix of Dell, ASUS and Acer Chromebooks and chargers. The team also checked that students had internet access at home, and they reminded students and parents that they could borrow district-owned Wi-Fi hotspots.

As for internet access, “it seems like everyone’s pretty much covered,” Gangwer says. An internet service provider also helped by offering families two months of free broadband.

With the technology team’s planning, BCSD teachers smoothly transitioned to remote learning with digital tools faculty and students already were familiar with: Google G Suite, Google Meet and Google Classroom, Lambert says.

“Going completely digital was a huge shift, but it’s just taking what you normally do and scaling it up,” Mannix says.

Internet access was a big concern for Dundee Community Schools in Michigan when the district temporarily closed in mid-March because of the coronavirus pandemic. Some families in the district, which covers 73 square miles, can’t afford internet service or live in areas that don’t have access. Using federal CARES Act funds, the district purchased 100 additional Wi-Fi hotspots.

Families have either borrowed or requested most of those devices, Technology Director RJ Seiler says.

In May, the Dundee school board also approved installing Wi-Fi access points in the high school parking lot.

“We are trying to step up and increase access,” Superintendent Edward Manuszak says.

Equipping students with devices is also part of their approach to digital equity. DCS launched its one-to-one computing program in mid-March, enabling remote learning for about 1,800 students. The district, which has a countywide millage to help pay for technology, had also previously equipped middle and high school students with Lenovo, ASUS and Acer Chromebooks. When school buildings closed in the spring, DCS had enough Chromebooks to let some students take home devices for remote learning. The district also loaned tablet computers to parents of K–2 students who needed them, Manuszak says.

In addition to those efforts, DCS leaders limit the amount of schoolwork assigned to students each day. Students can also download assignments on district Chromebooks and work offline, reducing the amount of time they need Wi-Fi access, Manuszak says. That approach is “a good balance of synchronous and asynchronous learning,” adds Jennifer Wonnell, the district’s director of curriculum, grants and technology.

DCS also expanded phone technical support to five hours a day, including evening hours, to assist students and their parents.

“We went from 100 teachers to having 1,500 parents trying to be teachers. A lot of it is working through how applications work,” Seiler says.

Bringing Internet Access to the Parking Lot

Cellphone service and broadband access are spotty in Pagosa Springs, Colo., a rural and mountainous, 1,350-square-mile region that is home to Archuleta School District. But only about 10 to 15 percent of the district’s 1,700 students don’t have internet access at home, Superintendent Linda Reed says. Still, the district purchased a Cisco Meraki access point that provides Wi-Fi access across the high school parking lot.

District officials also reached out to local businesses for help. Two ISPs offered two months of free service and waived activation fees for families, Reed says, and a local church moved Wi-Fi access points toward the front of its building to boost signals in its parking lot.

Students who can’t get online still have options for learning offline. Teachers compile paper packets of work, and each Friday parents can drop off finished assignments and pick up new ones, Reed says.

Over the past four years, IT Director Jesse Morehouse had purchased enough Chromebooks for every student, but only for classroom use. That changed when the district shifted to remote learning and distributed devices for students to take home.

“It’s going well, but the technology is just one piece of the paradigm. It’s also the flexibility and creativity of the teachers and the resiliency of the kids,” Morehouse says. “They’ve been able to run with it — and it’s impressive.”

Digital Composite: EJ Rodriquez/Getty Images (farm); zoom-zoom/Getty Images (clouds)