Aug 31, 2020

Remote learning leaves schools with a problem: how to get everyone online

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There's a huge, distributed, parallel effort across the country to get students access to the tools they need to learn.

In the rush to get families online in time for distance learning, it’s Wi-Fi hot spots to the rescue.

School districts all over the country are handing out hot spots as fast as they can get them. In the Ozarks, they’re parking school buses equipped with Wi-Fi routers for kids to use while sitting in the parking lot. Chicago is spending millions to give hot spots to individual families and also connect homes to broadband.

But is this sustainable? And will there be any going back from Wi-Fi for all? Christopher Mitchell is the director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative at the nonprofit Institute for Local Self-Reliance. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Christopher Mitchell: It’s interesting because I was just looking at an argument in a city council in which they were arguing, “Well, we’re going to install these hot spots. Should we take them down at some point? Do we want to say we’re only going to do it for two years?” And ultimately, they decided that they should leave them up indefinitely. And I feel like at this point, it’s hard to imagine it’ll be acceptable policy to not have kids have home internet access. And some people would say, libraries and McDonald’s will pick up the slack. But I just don’t think we’re going to go back from that.

Molly Wood: What about the money? We know that city and state revenues are taking a huge hit as a result of the pandemic. And that almost always results in cuts to education budgets. How does this trickle down when districts are in that position of having to spend tens of millions of dollars on infrastructure?

Mitchell: Some of this is definitely coming out of the CARES Act, which was federal legislation that put money toward different activities that would benefit people who have been harmed by COVID-19 or trying to just blunt the impact. A lot of the money that we’ve seen going into these different investments has been from that. And I don’t know where the next tranche of money is going to come from. A lot of us feel like the federal government has not been doing its part.

Wood: If schools hadn’t gone remote, do you think we would have seen this push for expanded access?

Mitchell: I think we would have over time. I think it accelerated things. I mean, what the pandemic has done to telehealth — it’s so accelerated everything. And I think we could say the same thing for schools. Some of the schools already had these plans because this was an issue. I mean, there are school districts in which half of the kids did not have home internet access. And before, that meant that they could do school during the day, [but] it meant that they could not do it at night. And that’s a big deal when kids, some kids, can’t do their homework. It’s led to significant racial inequity where you have kids who tend to be people of color who’d have less home internet access. And then they have less opportunity to learn. And so, this was a big deal already, but it just became intolerable when you couldn’t do any schoolwork rather than just not being able to do your homework.

Related links: More insight from Molly Wood

We’ll be covering school and tech on Mondays for at least the next few weeks. Send us your stories at mptech@marketplace.org.

If you go to Google News and type in “online school hotspots,” you’ll immediately get a sense of what a huge, distributed, parallel effort this is across the country right now. There’s a story in the Dallas News about hot spots bridging the digital divide. I did not know that Dallas ranks among the worst-connected for cities of its size. In North Carolina, the United Way is fundraising for hot spots. In San Jose, California, the city is spending over $8 million and partnering with AT&T to get 11,000 hot spots out the door. And for rural school districts, apparently internet access is just their job.

When it comes to parking lot hot spots like the kind we mentioned — the buses with Wi-Fi routers inside — that’s potentially not going to be a good solution once winter comes. What we really need is more broadband infrastructure. Back in May, Democrats in the House of Representatives passed a second coronavirus relief bill that does include funding for more broadband investment, particularly rural broadband. The bill has gone nowhere in the GOP-controlled Senate. I also went to Google News and typed in “Congress stimulus bill,” and it doesn’t seem like a lot is happening there either.

But you know, from sea to shining sea, schools and cities and even companies are trying to get it done. So good job, everyone. Keep at it.

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