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In rural ‘dead zones’, school arrives on a USB stick

Shekinah and Orlandria Lennon were sitting at their kitchen table this fall, taking online lessons, when video of their teachers and classmates suddenly froze on their laptop screens. The wireless antenna on the roof had stopped working and could not be repaired.

Desperate for a solution, their mother called five broadband companies, trying to get connections for their home in Orrum, North Carolina, a rural community of less than 100 people with no grocery stores or traffic lights.

All companies gave the same answer: the service is not available in your area.

The answer is the same in large swathes of Robeson County, North Carolina, a swathe of small towns and rural areas like Orrum dotted with soybean fields and pig farms on the South Carolina border. About 20,000 homes in the county, or 43% of all homes, do not have an Internet connection.

The technology divide has prompted teachers to download lessons to USB drives and send them home to dozens of students every two weeks. Some kids spend school nights sneaking up to more connected parents so they can go online for class the next day.

“It’s not fair,” said Shekinah, 17, who, after weeks of trying to stay connected to classes via her cell phone, was finally able to re-connect regularly last month thanks to a Wi-Fi access provided by the school. “I don’t think only city dwellers should have the Internet. We also need it in the country. “

Millions of American students struggle with the same challenges, learning at a distance without adequate home Internet service. Even though school districts like Robeson County have made efforts to provide laptops for students, many of those living in rural and low-income communities continue to have difficulty getting online.

About six million K-12 students lived in households without adequate online connectivity in 2018, according to a study of federal data by Common Sense Media, an education nonprofit that tracks children’s use of media.

Before the coronavirus, it was primarily an obstacle for students to do their homework, and it was an issue state and federal authorities struggled to resolve. But the pandemic has turned the lack of internet connectivity into a national emergency: suddenly millions of schoolchildren have been cut off from digital learning, unable to maintain virtual ‘attendance’ and socially excluded from their classmates.

The Trump administration has done little to expand broadband access for students, both before and during the pandemic, said James P. Steyer, chief executive of Common Sense Media. “There was no federal strategy, and it was up to individual states to come up with a patchwork of solutions,” he said.

When Congress passed a coronavirus relief package in March, it provided billions of dollars for emergency education needs, but none specifically to bridge the digital divide. Despite advocacy from groups including the US Chamber of Commerce, Mr. Steyer said, Republican leaders in Congress have blocked efforts to add such funds.

“The tragedy is that this is not a Democratic or Republican problem,” Mr. Steyer said. “It is just not fair that a poor family in a rural or low income urban area does not have the resources to send their children to school in this pandemic.

Desperate to find workarounds, schools across the country have scrambled to distribute mobile hotspots and internet-enabled iPads. Districts from Wisconsin to Kansas to Alabama have turned inactive school buses into Wi-Fi wireless vehicles that park in neighborhoods so students can sit nearby and log into classes.

In Baltimore, where a recent study found that nearly 20,000 households with school-aged children did not have high-speed internet or computers, the public school system provides internet connectivity to about 44,000 students, or 55 % of total district staff, officials said.

The challenge of bridging the digital divide can be especially daunting in states like North Carolina, which is home to the nation’s second-largest rural population and a geography that spans mountains, marshes and barrier islands.

About 100,000 of the state’s 1.5 million K-12 students were unable to connect to online services in August, according to the Department of Information Technology. More than 75,300 cellular hotspots were provided to schools by the end of October, and the state is trying to connect other students with public Wi-Fi locations and community grants for broadband infrastructure.

But politics have also hampered the state’s connectivity. In 2016, Republican state lawmakers won a legal battle to stop the spread of municipal broadband service providers, which had increased competition by serving residents where commercial networks were unwilling to go.

In Orange County, home to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and just west of some of the state’s largest cities, more than 5,200 homes do not have high-speed internet access, including about 1,100 students in the local school district, said Monique Felder, the superintendent.

She noted with frustration that the district is just a few miles from the state’s important Research Triangle Park, where IBM, Cisco and dozens of other information technology companies employ thousands of people.

“It’s not American,” said Felder, who pointed to the unaffordable prices and lack of cell phone towers as contributing to the problem. “I can’t understand that we live in a place where you have all this technology, but we have families who can’t access the internet from the comfort of their homes.

In September, the district school board voted to continue distance learning for most students until the end of the semester, citing health concerns, despite Ms. Felder’s recommendation to implement. a combination of in-person and online courses.

To help students connect, the district has distributed over 1,500 hot spots, often several to each family. Yellow buses equipped with Wi-Fi regularly rumble outside apartment complexes and housing estates. And for weeks, closed school cafeterias, once scented with chicken nuggets and quesadillas, functioned as internet hubs.

But without childcare, few parents brought their children, prompting the district to shut them down last month.

Today, many parents use a map of public Wi-Fi locations to help their children connect, and students can often be seen hunched over laptops in cars parked in the invisible range of wireless routers. “It only adds insult to injury when you have to sit in the parking lot of a McDonald’s to learn,” Ms. Felder said.

For months, Ms Felder and other local officials lobbied the state for systemic solutions, rather than band-aid fixes like hot spots. “We need cell towers and broadband,” she said. “It’s something we can’t build on our own. We need the government to step in and make it happen.

The tension is even deeper a two-hour drive south in Robeson County, where coronavirus test positivity rates have consistently been more than double the state’s 5% benchmark for reopening, which led the school board to extend distance learning until December, a spokesperson for the district said.

Sherry Park, principal of South Robeson Middle School, said about 60 of her 310 students live in “dead zones” for cell service. Every two weeks, their parents come to school to swap disks filled with completed schoolwork for new ones, uploaded with lesson videos and homework.

Sharon Hunt works 12 to 14 hours a day teaching eighth grade math in the school. In a voice frayed from exhaustion, she described a grueling schedule: teaching online in an empty classroom from 7:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., after which she returns home to spend several more hours compiling presentations. on a USB key before writing the homework.

Most of her students live in rural areas and half of the students in one of her classes do not have Internet access. A family has to walk to the nearest intersection to receive a cell phone. Ms Hunt said she tries to answer their questions over the phone, but teachers and students know it is not the same.

“You can tell in their voice that they’re struggling, but once we talk about some things, they sound better,” she says. “That’s all I have to keep going until I get their job.”

Lack of internet access has reshaped the family life of some students. Clarissa Breedan, an unemployed cosmetologist, lives with her parents and two children in a double-width trailer outside the small town of Roland. This fall, his four nieces also stayed there during the week, so they could go online for classes, only returning home on weekends.

Some girls sleep in recliners because there aren’t enough beds. “We have to do what we have to do,” Ms. Breedan said.

Josie Hunt lives on the outskirts of Roland; the only Internet access is satellite for $ 140 per month. But she canceled her subscription in September after a barrage of additional fees incurred by distance learning courses made the service unaffordable. And a broadband service provider said it would cost $ 12,000 to lay a cable to his home.

“I’d rather never have the Internet if I have to pay so much,” said Ms Hunt, who is disabled and whose husband does odd jobs.

Without it, her 14-year-old son Nehemiah was forced to rely on USB drives to do his schoolwork, with devastating results. “At school, I did all the Aces and Bs,” he says. “Now I am failing.”

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