When the coronavirus pandemic closed school buildings, teachers were tasked with connecting students from afar. Suddenly, the students’ lack of home Internet access was in the spotlight.
A survey conducted in mid-March by the Oklahoma Department of Education found that nearly a quarter of students in public schools across the state, or about 167,000, do not have Internet access at the House.
This means that in places like Hugo, a community of 5,100 people in Southeast Oklahoma, teachers have had to try to reach students through phone calls, emails and letters. . The district has distributed hundreds of homework kits to students who are offline.
Despite the efforts, some students did not respond.
âWe are fortunate to have an exceptional group of teachers who have found creative ways to reach their students during the crisis,â said Superintendent Earl Dalke. âIf we could have offered online learning opportunities to all students, we could have done a much better job. “
In some rural areas internet service is spotty or slow, or even nonexistent. Districts have rushed to buy hot spots, which create a wireless Internet connection through cellular networks. This created a backlog with cell phone companies, with orders taking weeks. Some districts have installed school buses with wireless internet in neighborhoods or welcomed families to school parking lots for a signal.
It’s a patchwork approach that officials say leaves some students behind.
It is also a rushed, crisis-driven approach, given the circumstances. But the upcoming influx of federal relief dollars offers an opportunity to address what state Superintendent of Education Joy Hofmeister has called “a lingering problem” – a high inadequate flow at home.
The state expects $ 160 million in federal relief funds for K-12 education, 90% of which will go directly to school districts. Ten percent, or $ 16 million, can be spent by the department.
Governor Kevin Stitt, like all state governors, receives an additional federal education grant from the Governor’s Emergency Education Fund. Stitt is expected to receive $ 40 million. Stitt said on April 17 that he was considering spending some of the funds on a scholarship fund for private schools or on advanced placement courses in rural areas, causing widespread backlash.
âOur main focus is connectivity and the ability to bridge the digital divide,â said Hofmeister of the department’s share of funds. She suggested that Stitt use her share on Internet access as well. “Our schools are looking for a long term plan.”
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos also urges school districts to use the funds to invest in “technology, distance learning resources, training and long-term planning,” to support lifelong learning. distance, according to a recent press release.
Even when schools reopen, possibly this fall, there may be situations that require another hub to distance education. A resurgence of COVID-19 may require widespread shutdowns again. Social distancing could lead schools to organize more digital days to reduce risk. Individual students could take distance education if exposure to COVID-19 forces them to self-quarantine at home.
District relief funds will be distributed according to the Title 1 formula, which is based on the number of low-income students served by the district. But the funds have fewer restrictions than Title 1 funds. For example, federal funds from the CARES Act can be spent on technology infrastructure upgrades that impact the entire district.
“Think about access to the Internet via Wi-Fi and the ability to impact not only on common education, but also on students, wherever they go to school.” , said Hofmeister. âIt’s more of a comprehensive and comprehensive response. “
The greatest needs are rural
Ninety-nine percent of schools nationwide have high-speed internet and Wi-Fi in classrooms to support digital learning, according to EducationSuperHighway, a nonprofit focused on improving Internet access in public schools.
But get out of Luther’s school and Internet access is “really difficult or slow,” said Barry Gunn, Luther’s superintendent. This is the case in many communities.
âWe’re not as rural as most of the schools, and it’s spotty here in some places,â Gunn said. Luther is less than 30 miles from downtown Oklahoma City, in the eastern part of Oklahoma County.
Less than half of people in rural Oklahoma have access to high-speed internet – one of the lowest percentages of any state, according to a Federal Communications Commission report. Only two states reported a lower percentage of rural access: Arizona and Nevada.
That’s 651,000 Oklahoma residents in rural areas who don’t have high-speed Internet access, defined as download speeds of at least 25 megabits per second.
âIn today’s world, the way we are interconnected is a necessity,â said David Ostrowe, Secretary of State for Digital Transformation and Administration. He wants all Oklahomans to have not only access, but speeds of at least 100 megabits per second, a goal he called “high.”
âRural access is currently the biggest obstacle. It is very expensive to provide Internet access to these areas, âOstrowe said.
Hot spots, fairness
One of the most effective workarounds is a portable wireless access point, which connects to a cellular network and provides Internet access. These devices are how Epic Charter Schools, the state’s largest virtual school with nearly 30,000 students across the state, delivers the internet to any student who needs it. Like other schools, Epic will receive federal relief funds.
Epic devices provide work independent of a family’s cell phone, and the school pays monthly data plans for the service, said Shelly Hickman, spokesperson for Epic.
Demand for hotspots has skyrocketed in recent weeks as schools have switched to distance education. Dozens of school districts across the country have contacted EveryoneOn, a nonprofit that works to improve internet access and device accessibility for low-income families, about the purchase LTE-enabled wireless access points and tablets, said CEO Norma Fernandez.
There is a backlog, she said, and orders that previously would have been filled in a week now take two or three weeks. Schools are trying to order thousands at a time. In the meantime, students are trying to switch to distance learning without the tools they need, adding stress to an already stressful situation.
âWe are talking about kids who are already late,â Fernandez said. “It has a significant impact on their learning.”
Public schools in Tulsa, the state’s second largest district, have distributed tens of thousands of Chromebooks. But connecting all the students to the Internet proved more difficult.
âWe provided a computer for any child who needed it, and we were able to do so thanks to the generosity of the Tulsans,â said Superintendent Deborah Gist, referring to bond dollars. âThe challenge is access to the Internet.
The Tulsa school board on Monday evening approved the purchase of 1,500 wireless access points to allow students to access the Internet for summer school.
High-speed Internet is available to 95% of Oklahoma residents living in urban areas and less than 50% of those in rural areas, according to the FCC. Affordability is still a problem statewide. Even with low cost plans available, providers can decline service based on a family’s credit history.
One solution the district is using is to park a school bus with free Wi-Fi at various locations around town to fill in the gaps.
Likewise, Oklahoma City public schools have welcomed families to their school parking lots to access free Wi-Fi while schools are closed. And in Tahlequah, the local electric co-op added two free public Wi-Fi points at a city school and park as part of the FCC’s “Keep Americans Connected” initiative, according to the Tahlequah Daily Press. More than 700 companies have signed pledges not to terminate service due to customers’ inability to pay bills, waive late fees, and open Wi-Fi hotspots to Americans who need it.
School solutions like these, while useful temporarily, are not suitable for the long term, said Fernandez, of EveryoneOn. And they present equity issues.
âWe want equitable and ubiquitous access. We don’t expect high income families to drive to a parking lot to access the internet, âshe said.
When the state ordered a full switch to distance education for all districts on April 6, Idabel was ready.
A month before schools closed for the coronavirus pandemic, Idabel public schools held the district’s first ‘virtual day’. This was something Superintendent Doug Brown had heard about on a podcast, and he wanted to try it out as part of an ongoing effort to increase the district’s use of technology.
Three years ago, the district began providing hotspots for teachers, and when they modernized, the district kept the older ones for use by students. âWe check them like a library book,â he said. It is also an individual district, which means that all students have a computer or tablet to use. The community approved a $ 1 million bond for the tech equipment in 2017.
âWe have been truly blessed. We were really prepared for this situation, âsaid Brown.
Student participation in Idabel’s distance education averages over 90%, which he described as âphenomenalâ.
The district, in the far southeastern corner of Oklahoma, has 1,200 students this year. Almost 90% are entitled to a free or reduced price lunch, an indicator of poverty. Brown said this spurred him to increase access to technology.
âThe technology is here and it’s not going to go away, and we have to move forward in our education system,â he said. âIt is even more important that poor neighborhoods provide these opportunities.