Students Are Falling Behind in Rural Ohio Where Remote Learning Has Exposed the Digital Divide
The COVID-19 pandemic has spotlighted an issue that Ohio’s rural communities have been struggling with for years: the lack of adequate broadband service. It’s particularly affected education in parts of the state like Ashtabula County. Some parents say their kids have fallen behind simply because they can’t get online from home.
At the mercy of bandwidth
Jennifer Jerman is a single mom of four. She says Ashtabula Area City Schools provided her kids with Chromebooks when the pandemic hit last year, but they’re at the mercy of internet bandwidth that can’t handle the load at home. So, her kids had to use their phones for school.
"Who can sit in a class for six hours holding a cell phone?" she said.
Many districts used federal CARES Act dollars to buy things like Chromebooks and Wi-Fi hot spots for families. But parents still have to arrange for internet service itself. And even then it can be lacking, and upgrading to faster speeds is often not in the budget.
"It comes down to more money that a single mom doesn’t have. [Internet providers] do have services that are for people with moderate-to-low income, but that’s even less [bandwidth] than what I pay for," Jerman said.
Like Jerman, Jessica Schillace in the Jefferson School District says the hot spot her school gave her was not enough bandwidth for her four children when they were learning from home earlier this year.
"I keep getting attendance phone calls for my one son saying he’s not in class. Which he’s trying. He’s sitting there with his computer open, but he can’t log on so he’s not getting credit," she said.
Schools say they’re doing all they can to keep families connected, but there’s nothing they can do to make up for a lack of broadband access in the community. Grand Valley Local Schools' Director of Pupil Services Dr. Ellen Winer says other than providing Chromebooks and hot spots, they set up Wi-Fi for families in the school parking lot, but no one was using it.
"We are not set up for online learning. Our strong suit is our teachers. Our kids are falling behind, and we have somewhere in the 40% of our high school students failing. That’s never happened before. Never."
Overstated coverage maps
Ashtabula County officials say the barrier to addressing the lack of broadband access in the community lies in inaccurate coverage maps.
Connected Nation Ohio has been working since 2008 to provide accurate coverage maps for each county in the state. It's used its own data collection, research and user feedback and says where it's been unable to compile data for a particular area, it's used FCC data "which tends to be overstated." The Federal Communications Commission is also updating its maps after Congress passed the Broadband Deployment Accuracy and Technological Availability (DATA) Act last year.
County Commissioner J.P. Ducro says internet companies only have to disclose that their service reaches a particular area, not how well it’s served.
"So you may see a map that shows a good portion of Ashtabula County has internet speeds of 25 megs and up, but then you talk to people that live in those areas, they’ll say, ‘If that happens once a month, we’re lucky,’” he said.
Ducro says until they have more reliable coverage maps, it’s hard to know where to invest dollars and apply for grant money to improve access. So first, the county has formed a broadband task force. Then, together with Mahoning and Trumbull counties as The Eastgate Regional Council of Governments, applied for a broadband feasibility study that should be complete this summer.
Frustration and big dollars at the state level
Meanwhile, Lt. Gov. John Husted says he’s frustrated.
"I realized pretty quickly that we’re gonna have to take matters into our own hands and lead this inside state government," he said.
Gov. Mike DeWine’s new two-year budget proposal recommends that the legislature spend $250 million toward broadband expansion. The Ohio House recently passed a measure that would direct $210 million toward increasing broadband access. The total includes $20 million annually over three fiscal years, plus another $150 million for the coming year that was part of DeWine’s budget proposal. The legislation would still need approval from the Senate. That chamber recently passed a similar bill to create such a program, but it didn’t include the same funding specifications.
There are also several pilot projects underway in southern Ohio. One is using low-orbiting satellites to provide high-speed internet to about 100 homes. Another is using existing technology through
Multi-Agency Radio Communications System (MARCS) towers in Scioto and Jackson Counties to provide low-cost internet to unserved households in the area. And a third pilot project is a partnership between Riverside Local School District in Logan County, OARnet and PCs for People. It uses federal CARES Act funding to use new fixed wireless technology on school property that can serve around 600 households in three surrounding towns.
The state has also launched RemoteEdx, an initiative that allows schools to use federal funding to pay for internet for families who can’t afford it. The state also put together a remote learning guide for parents, teachers and schools.
One company's response
Husted says all of that is a start. Still, he blames the private sector for failing to do more.
"You see a lot of big tech companies who go Capitol Hill and their CEOs testify and they talk about how much they care about helping close the income gap and bridge the digital divide. And then when you ask them to do something about it, they don’t," he said.
One of Ashtabula County’s top internet providers, Windstream, said in a statement that it’s invested more than $5.6 million since 2016 to expand broadband in Ashtabula County and will use funding from the FCC’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund to continue that work. The company also says it’s not economically feasible to deploy high-speed internet without a public-private partnership. The county’s other leading provider, Spectrum, did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
Parents like Jerman are running out of patience.
"The way things are working right now, it’s not working. I think until we address the needs in our area, we’re going to keep struggling," she said.
Meanwhile, Winer at Grand Valley Schools says speeding up the process is critical. She says between September 2019 and February of this year, enrollment has dropped nearly 10%. That equals $100,000 in lost revenue.
As for bridging the gap for the students who have fallen behind, Winer says her school district is working an an extended learning plan that may include hiring tutors (licensed teachers) and a family liaison to coordinate social and emotional support services. Winer also says Ashtabula County is looking into providing a "robust" online learning program to serve students who benefited from the remote format.
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