With third-world internet speeds, some SC rural residents struggle to learn online

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Burgundy Barr and her family had gotten used to having slow internet.

If one of her two children, 5 and 3, are streaming a movie, they must disconnect laptops, tablets, phones and anything else that sucks up bandwidth so the movie can play, Barr said.

That goes for work too. If she — who works part-time in human resources and part-time for a housing authority — or her husband, Larry, who works as a data analyst, need the computer, the digital activity in the Batesburg-Leesville house has to cease.

They even have walkie-talkies, so that they can check if someone is on the internet before logging on and kicking them off.

It was annoying, but it was manageable, Barr said.

Then came coronavirus. The entire family of four was forced to work and learn from home.

Their wireless internet speed is supposedly three megabits per second (mbps), Larry Barr said. He ran a test during a phone interview and the actual download speed was closer to 2.5 and the upload speed was .3 mpbs.

The average American broadband speed is more than 55 times that, at 137 mbps, according to Ookla, a company that makes apps that test internet connection speeds.

In fact, the Barr’s internet is slower than the average broadband speeds in Afghanistan, Cuba, Yemen and Venezuela, according to Ookla.

“You learn to change your expectations,” Burgundy said.

In an age where daily life requires a reliable internet connection, not having that access is a barrier to learning and working. Now that coronavirus has closed schools and quarantined students, more and more classroom activities are being done online. And without reliable access to the internet, experts say the homework gap is likely to widen, with no return to school in sight.

Amid the coronavirus quarantine, teachers have been holding online class meetings; student lesson plans are online; teachers video-conference with students; lessons built to feel like video games are only available electronically. Having limited or no internet access makes these features of modern education out of reach for many students.

“We’re in a hole,” Burgundy said, noting that places roughly a mile of them, such as Batesburg-Leesville High School, have access to high-speed internet access.

If the Barrs could upgrade their internet, they would, but AT&T doesn’t offer faster residential service in that area, Burgundy said. Internet companies such as AT&T have been investing millions of dollars to expand internet service in rural areas in recent years, AT&T spokeswoman Ann Elsas said in an email.

The coronavirus quarantine has made it harder for the Barrs to work and learn, but they’re still fortunate in many ways. They live in a cozy, two-story house. They’re still employed. And even though their internet is slow, at least they have internet. Some parts of the Midlands, such as parts of Eastover, have no internet at all.

“We’re trying to keep up the work so they don’t lose any momentum,” Burgundy said of her kids.

But not everyone is so fortunate.

‘Homework gap’

Slow internet or no internet access, even in relatively good times, has a serious effect on rural students’ ability to learn and complete assignments, according to experts, studies, media reports and more. It’s a phenomenon known as the “homework gap.”

In South Carolina, 38 percent of rural homes do not have access to broadband, according to a 2017 report from Congressional Democrats for the U.S. Joint Economic Committee. More than a half-million South Carolinians have little or no broadband access, according to a previous article from The State.

There’s no question having poor internet or no internet puts a student at a disadvantage, said Stephen Pruitt, the president of the Southern Regional Education Board, an Atlanta-based organization that researches and recommends ways to improve education.

Sometimes, poor internet access means homework goes undone; other times — like with the Barr family — homework has to compete with bandwidth used by family breadwinners, Pruitt said.

“It could be often the kids aren’t getting on the computer until later in the day,” Pruitt said.

It’s just “simple math” that some rural and also low-income students won’t be able to access online courses the same way that their middle-class or urban peers can, Pruitt said.

Not only are many rural students left out of the internet speeds their more urban and wealthy peers enjoy, they’re geographically distant from their friends and classmates.

“They’re literally isolated,” Pruitt said.

That’s part of the reason teachers have been focusing more on students’ mental health than a couple missed assignments while students are quarantined, said Lisa Ellis, a Blythewood High School teacher and founder of activist organization SC for Ed.

“This is a traumatic situation,” said Ellis, who teaches roughly 100 students per day.

“They just need to do the best they can,” Ellis said.

Usually, teachers can gauge whether a student is doing emotionally well by seeing them in class and talking to them, but the physical distance from students makes that harder, Ellis said.

That’s why video conferences with students are the “best part of my day,” for her and other teachers, Ellis said.

It’s not just students who are behind. Many teachers had little to no training in teaching students online before coronavirus closed schools, Pruitt said. Even for those with training, the sheer number of students needing to learn online has overwhelmed the system.

“(Coronavirus) literally is affecting every facet of education,” Pruitt said.

More than just rural

The issue of poor internet access also applies to low-income students in the suburbs and cities, said S.C. Rep. Jerry Govan, D-Orangeburg.

There is an “access issue with poor students because there is a cost to high-speed internet,” Govan said. “It’s not free.”

There are places throughout Columbia that offer free, public access to the internet, such as public libraries. But since nearly all of these places have closed to prevent the spread of coronavirus, urban students no longer have access to those public resources.

S.C. Rep. Wendy Brawley, a Democrat whose district includes Lower Richland and Eastover, said her constituents struggle with both having physical access to high-speed internet and being priced out of high-speed internet.

Broadband “in rural communities is almost nonexistent,” Brawley said.

“Until we get internet available to every part of the state, we will not progress as we should,” Brawley said.

The issue of rural broadband isn’t a party-line issue. Republicans, whose districts tend to be more rural than Democrats’, also see this as a problem.

S.C. Sen. Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington — whose district includes Pelion, Batesburg-Leesville and the Barr family’s home — told The State rural access to broadband is a “serious issue.”

Teaching and learning through a computer is “not ideal,” said Shealy, who has two grandsons who are doing remote classes.

Some students may struggle to focus without a teacher. Parents may be too busy at their jobs — or looking for a new one if they are one of the 64,856 South Carolinians who filed for unemployment last week— to help teach their kids or keep them on task, Shealy said.

“It’s not the best of circumstances, but on the flip side, what are we to do?” Shealy said.

“I don’t know how you plan for this,” Shealy said.

WHAT SCHOOLS ARE DOING

Schools are well aware of how difficult it is for students to stay on track and up to date without a reliable internet connection, officials from Lexington and Richland county school districts said.

As a result, educators have had to get creative, especially as districts like Richland 2 convert even more grades to using e-learning, spokeswoman Libby Roof said in an email.

Richland 2 has ordered more supplies for an existing program that loans mobile hotspots to families with limited internet access. In the meantime, the district has installed wireless internet equipment at 18 locations where families can drive to and access the internet for free, Roof said.

Many school districts, such as Richland 1 and Lexington 2, have been driving WiFi-enabled buses to areas where students typically have poor or no internet access and encouraging students to download several days of lessons, officials from the districts said.

Lexington 2 is encouraging parents to take advantage of Spectrum’s offer to give 60 days of free internet for any household with a K-12 or college student, spokeswoman Dawn Kujawa said in an email.

Kujawa said she has been personally on the phone with Spectrum helping families who have had issues.

Many districts are encouraging students and parents to park outside a school or district office to get free WiFi where they can download several days of assignments at once.

If online access is simply not possible, Lexington 3 has set up a hotline where students who cannot access online lessons can call to have a paper packet mailed to their houses, said district spokeswoman Mackenzie Taylor.

Some students — primarily young students — have been using printed readings and homework, according to officials from Lexington and Richland county schools.

Kindergarten through second grade teachers in Lexington 2, who must wait for print packages to show up before they can give feedback to students, have been compensating for this lack of face time by sending video messages to students and holding class meetings, Kujawa said.

There are some advantages to printed assignments, but also some drawbacks, said York, the Richland 1 spokeswoman.

“For example, students in Pre-K4 through grade 2 benefit from the fine motor skill development often associated with writing letters and numbers, and learning packets are more helpful in promoting these skills,” York said in a statement. “A disadvantage to not having electronic assignments for any group is that students often enjoy the ‘gaming’ aspect of learning.”

While physical copies of lessons and assignments allow students to complete their tasks regardless of internet access, that can be clunky to use, said Aisha Robinson, whose two children attend Heyward Gibbes Middle School and Hyatt Park Elementary School in the Richland 1 school district.

For example, when Robinson’s students were using take-home packets the first week of quarantine, her kids had to write down their assignments, take pictures of what they wrote and email it to the teacher using a smartphone.

Despite the difficulties, she applauds teachers for giving parents their personal cell phone numbers and being responsive to student concerns.

“They have been very helpful,” Robinson said. “They have limited resources.”

Solutions

Online learning has been a major trend for colleges and high schools, albeit for different reasons. For colleges, online learning saves money. For high schoolers, being competent with a computer, tablet and other electronics is a basic skill needed for nearly any job.

But e-learning — in this context of replacing in-person schools — varies in quality by district and was only meant to be a “stopgap,” according to a letter the American Federation of Teachers, a labor union, sent to U.S. Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos on March 5.

Especially in southern, coastal states used to hurricanes, teachers are used to running classes for a few days online, Pruitt said. But the sheer scope of students and teachers relying on the internet for day-to-day education is “unprecedented,” Pruitt said.

Rather, the American Federation of Teachers recommended alternatives. One of those was telephone trees — an automated system in which one person can communicate quickly with a large group, according to the letter. These are sometimes used by protest organizers who need to speak quickly with other demonstrators in real-time, according to the American Association of University Women.

Another alternative is to mail all assignments, which carries the upside of everyone being on the same footing, but begets postage costs and creates other disadvantages highlighted earlier.

A third idea was using local radio or public access television stations to broadcast messages, according to the letter. This is an idea that interested S.C. Rep. Govan, who has made expanding SCETV a priority.

SCETV already produces content for S.C. classrooms and provides teacher training and re-certification, according to SCETV’s website.

With nine radio stations and 11 TV stations, SCETV’s reach is wider and more attainable for low income families than high-speed internet, Govan argues.

SCETV also has towers in rural counties like Allendale, Florence and Greenwood, according to SCETV’s website.

“One of the things about this virus is it has caused us to take a re-take on how we deliver education in this state,” Govan said.

“Things are never going to be totally the same,” Govan said.

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