‘Building the airplane as we fly it’: COVID-19 closures bring broadband challenges for rural schools

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A computer with papers stacked on the keyboard.

SALEM, Ohio — In the past few weeks, the new coronavirus, COVID-19, has dominated headlines, with confirmed cases quickly multiplying in Ohio and Pennsylvania. West Virginia confirmed its first case March 17.

K-12 schools and colleges in both states have closed and are making the transition to online learning. There’s a huge push to keep Americans connected, from public and private agencies — but some residents in rural areas were never connected in the first place.

Audra Mulkern, of the Female Farmer Project, a project that focuses on telling stories of women in agriculture, lives in Washington state, where there were just under 2,000 positive cases of COVID-19, as of March 22.

Mulkern works with Refresh Food and Tech Working Group, which researches issues that intersect at food, agriculture and technology, and is in a cohort that focuses on broadband.

She is used to working from home, but now her husband and two children, who are in college, have also been working and studying from home since the end of February, along with many other people in the state.

“It feels like everybody’s clinging to the internet,” she said. “Broadband absolutely needs to be a public utility.”

With so many people using the internet in her area socially and professionally, Mulkern has noticed her service slow down. She and her family have been trying to get their work done at times when less people are online.

Mulkern’s local school district, Riverview School District, in Duvall, Washington, was one of the last to close in the state. It closed March 16, around the same time that schools in Ohio were closing.

K-12 schools

Dalton Summers, superintendent of River View Local Schools, in Coshocton County, Ohio, said the district has a combination plan to keep education going, while the school is closed to students.

The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that about 68% of households in Coshocton County have a broadband internet subscription.

Summers said the district gave fourth- through 12th-grade students surveys the week before schools closed to find out how many of its students had internet access. About 85% of these students had some type of internet access. But for some, that access could be as limited as a hotspot on their phone, he said.

The district has the next three weeks of assignments and work available for these students both online, and in paper packets. Teachers are available online during the day to help students virtually. Kindergarten through third-grade students are mostly working from paper packets.

“We’re building the airplane as we fly it,” he said.

Summers said teachers are currently preparing more packets for another three-week period, in case the school closures extend past the original date, April 3.

Based on Summers’s conversations with school districts in surrounding rural counties, many rural Ohio schools are taking a similar approach. Carrollton Exempted Village Schools are using Google Classroom and Google Meet to post assignments and communicate with sixth- through 12th-grade students, said superintendent David Quattrochi.

Quattrochi said his district is putting together packets for elementary students and planning how to distribute them. They will also most likely use physical packets for older students who don’t have adequate internet access. Census bureau data shows that about 72% of households in Carroll County have a broadband internet subscription.

The district was, however, still identifying which students have access, as of March 20.

“We now have libraries closed, so those students are really limited,” Quattrochi said.

The Ohio Library Council is letting local libraries decide whether or not to close, but strongly recommended that libraries temporarily close their buildings to the public.

As of March 19, the council said more than 187 of the 251 public library systems in Ohio had announced some type of closure to the public. Some of these libraries still have digital resources available.

State testing is currently suspended due to the closures. The Ohio Department of Education had not announced details on state testing adjustments, as of March 23, but says it will be adjusting the testing schedule.

Universities

Colleges across the state and country are also switching to virtual learning, with some moving students out of dorms.

Ohio State University told Farm and Dairy that it is working with students who don’t have internet access. Faculty and staff are looking at options for students with slower internet or who can’t log in at scheduled class times, including shorter videos and modules that can be downloaded or streamed more easily, and longer periods of time to participate.

The university has a page on its website dedicated to offering tips for online learning, information about providers offering free or reduced-cost access and ways for students to get help on technical questions.

Providers and government

Federal Communications Commission chairman Ajit Pai asked broadband providers March 13 to take the Keep Americans Connected pledge. The pledge includes not cutting off service or charging late fees to customers who are unable to pay bills, due to issues connected to COVID-19, and opening wifi hotspots to any American who needs them.

Nearly 400 telecommunications companies had taken the pledge, as of March 19. Comcast and Spectrum also offered two months of free service for low-income households or households with students who are not already customers, respectively. Several other companies have offered unlimited data to existing customers or offered access at a reduced cost for low-income households.

The FCC and other government agencies have also adjusted legislation to address the COVID-19 situation.

The FCC waived gift rules March 18 so that broadband providers can offer better connections or more equipment to programs that help schools, libraries and health care providers get broadband services.

The Trump administration and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced March 17 that they are expanding Medicare coverage for telehealth, temporarily, in response to the COVID-19 situation, so more citizens can access healthcare from their homes.

The U.S. government’s official website for Medicare notes that older citizens seem to be at a higher risk for more serious COVID-19 illness, which means that most people with Medicare are at a higher risk. Expanding telehealth coverage will allow more people to stay home and avoid COVID-19 exposure.

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