“Digital divide”: Pandemic lays bare rural schools’ challenge

Keeping Schools Safe

ROAN MOUNTAIN, Tenn. (WJHL) – When Cloudland High School (CHS) shut down in mid-March, lack of high-speed internet availability meant about more than 100 students simply couldn’t participate in the transition to virtual learning.

“When you get to actually the pockets and communities and up the mountains where our students live, about one-fifth of our students do not have any access whatsoever to high speed or any broadband service,” CHS Principal Richard Church said.

The rural school and its counterpart elementary serve many students who live up remote hills and hollows where even cell phone service is often spotty. That drawback is problem enough in normal times, particularly given that Carter County Schools often close for 10 days or more for snow each year.

Church and his Cloudland Elementary counterpart Becky Raulston and her assistant principal Scott Tester said COVID-19 has only exacerbated it. Students begin using computers frequently when they begin standardized testing in third grade.

“I would say when they say they have online access they are talking about a phone,” Tester said. “When we were trying to do some of the distance stuff, they couldn’t download, they couldn’t print. We were just kind of handcuffed. You can only do so much on a phone.”

Church said the school district is doing what it can to increase hardware availability, including devoting federal CARES Act money to providing devices for more students. And in the more remote areas, officials are trying to improvise when it comes to connectivity.

“As a school district we are trying to come up with ways in order to at least have hot spots for those kids, but even then it would still involve some level of travel to a place where we might have a bus set up,” Church said. “There is no clear answer immediately to bridge this digital divide for our students that live in some of those remote geographic areas.”

Raulston said technology that can bring high-speed broadband is advancing, and getting less expensive — but not from the incumbent providers.

“We’re talking about Buck Mountain, the top of the Roan, you know – the internet access is just not there,” Raulston said. “To get it in some places they’re two, three thousand dollars just to get it into a home.”

That was a disadvantage even before COVID-19 in a place like Carter County, where students often miss 10 or more days in a school year due to snow.

“It would be awesome if we could make that connection with kids and parents,” she said. “We’re accountable for this testing and they don’t move the testing date. It doesn’t matter when we’re out for snow or how many days we’re out for snow.”

Getting some attention

Tennessee Attorney General Herb Slatery said his office recognizes the challenge — and it’s not alone among state AG offices. He recently signed onto a letter with several dozen other state AGs to the federal government. In essence, it called for more funding to expand broadband to underserved areas — and more flexibility in how such money is spent.

“We’ve learned a lot of things during this period but the importance of internet connections and broadband, I’m not sure you can overstate at this point how important it is,” Slatery told News Channel 11.

He said the state’s Broadband Accessibility Act, overseen by the Department of Economic and Community Development, offers a potentially effective flow-through point for federal dollars.

“We feel like the states are in a lot better position to really implement a program like this,” Slatery said. “They can get down to the local communities and see what works. They know who has internet and who doesn’t. The federal maps are probably not that accurate, they can map their own community and you know where to use the funds.”

Slatery said any process could use the Universal Service Fund, which is what helped expand telephone service to rural areas, and that it should be as unbureaucratic as possible.

“The universal service fund is already set up for that, they’ve got a grant program and there is no need to create another agency or department or division.

“I think that that would be effective. The key would be what are the strings attached to the funds that would be actually delivered.”

Using the ECD’s program would allow for accountability, Slatery said. “You need to show us what’s happened, and it’s fairly easy to measure I would think. There are a number of factors, how many people have been trained, how many new connections.”

Slatery also said funding smaller providers, including locally owned cooperatives, is a key. With larger companies, he said, sometimes “you can’t figure out, ‘is this happening.'”

Church strongly agreed that the red tape needs to be kept to a minimum.

“The federal, state, local officials need to work with the companies that this is their livelihood to work out these solutions … but this is the perfect example and the perfect timing to make that happen,” Church said. “So I hope something positive that can come out of this pandemic is we will finally service our rural areas with high speed internet.”

Raulston concurred. “The technology’s there, it’s just getting it out there and then getting folks educated to know how to access it,” she said.

Students are quick to become adept at using the technology, but adults take a bit longer — and she and Church both said a culture change is needed away from the mindset that if school is out for weather or another reason, there’s no opportunity — or good reason – to keep up academically.

“It would be great to have a supplemental resource where these kids could access it and we could still continue instruction even though it’s not near as effective as in person,” Raulston said.

“If we could have something to stay in touch with them and keep school on their mind I think it would help Carter County.”

Slatery said whether it’s academics or telemedicine, kids are going to be the leaders in rural areas.

If you can get it in a home and in the schools and libraries – that’s the focus of the federal legislation that’s been proposed – the kids can carry the ball. They’ll learn it, they’ll  learn it fast and they can almost train their parents and other people in the home if they have a chance.

“That’d be where I would do it, I think it’s smart to go into the schools and give them laptops and chromebooks and things like that and it’ll eventually get out there.”

Church said eventually can’t come soon enough for him.

“Those hundred to 125 kids, they weren’t allowed to participate, so it was definitely an equity divide there,” he said.

Church said he’s getting the sense from legislators and other leaders that “they see this now as the equity issue that it is.”

At the local level, he said, “we’ll have devices ready to be put in students’ hands but until they have that connectivity in certain areas, you know, the devices, they’re useless.”

“We have certain pockets in communities across the state – not just in Tennessee but across all rural areas – COVID has reared its ugly head and we see now what it can cause if we don’t have the access that our students need.”

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