Monday, September 14, 2020

Between 30 and 50 Percent of West Virginia Schools Lack Internet Access

Fascinating. Kinda sad, but fascinating.

Not sure if the figures include private schools, but either way, it's unreal.

At WSJ, "Remote Schooling Out of Reach for Many Students in West Virginia Without Internet":
HARTS, W.Va.—Just before 9 a.m., Hollee Blair sat in her boyfriend’s Toyota Tacoma in the parking lot of Chapmanville Regional High School and waited for attendance to be taken.

With no broadband internet at home, Ms. Blair, a 17-year-old honors student who plans to study nursing after high school, used her boyfriend’s iPhone to connect to the school’s Wi-Fi for an hour-long orientation over Zoom.

“I’ll do whatever it takes to keep up,” said Ms. Blair, shielding her eyes so she could see the phone’s screen. “If it means doing this every day, I’ll do it. It’s worth it.”

Much of southern West Virginia had already been struggling with a drug epidemic and persistent poverty before the coronavirus pandemic took hold here. Now, as students return to school online, the region is coming up against another longstanding challenge: a lack of broadband internet access.

Nationwide, about 21 million people lack access to broadband, according to the Federal Communications Commission. When people with slow or unreliable internet connections are included, the number swells to 157 million, nearly half the U.S. population, according to a study by Microsoft Corp.

Providing service in sparsely populated areas is typically more costly and less profitable than in suburbs and cities. In Appalachia, the terrain has made it difficult to install and maintain the infrastructure necessary for broadband.

In West Virginia, between 30% and 50% of K-12 students don’t have internet access at home, according to the state Department of Education. By the start of school on Tuesday, the state had set up nearly 850 Wi-Fi hot spots at schools, libraries, National Guard armories and state parks for students.

So far, nine of West Virginia’s 55 counties, including Logan County, where Ms. Blair lives, are teaching all classes remotely after spikes in Covid-19 cases pushed them above a threshold for new daily cases set by the state.

But in the state’s other 46 counties, many students will still need to connect online as some districts choose a blended model that mixes in-person and remote classes. Counties may also be required to halt in-person classes if case levels rise too high.

Logan County has had 536 cases of Covid-19 and 36 related deaths.

This week, Gov. Jim Justice lifted a $50 million cap on how much the state can receive from a fund created by the FCC to bring high-speed broadband to rural areas. But it isn’t clear how much the state will ultimately receive and how long it will take providers to connect homes.

“You’ve just got to step up and meet this challenge,” the governor said.

Meanwhile, Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, a Democrat, is seeking federal funding to set up broadband hot spots across the country to aid remote learning during the pandemic.

“This is a short-term fix to a long-term problem, but until we treat access to broadband like the need for electricity was treated in the 1930s, our students will fall behind,” he said.

In Logan County, which is blanketed by rugged mountains, nearly a quarter of residents live below the federal poverty line, according to census data. At Logan High School, the hallways and classrooms are empty, and teachers are troubleshooting tech problems as they begin broadcasting their classes to students from laptops.

Jennifer Stillwell, a history teacher, said some poorer students won’t have transportation to get to a hot spot. She is giving students the option to use a photo of themselves rather than live video, in case they don’t feel comfortable having their home appear on screen.

She was encouraged that after three days of classes, she had been unable to reach only five students who may lack internet out of 105 on her roster.

On Thursday, her AP history class got off to a smooth start, with 16 students logging in. “Let’s see if we can chat,” she said brightly, as she introduced herself from her neat classroom.

The Logan County school district is using a $375,000 grant from the state to get students connected. Patricia Lucas, the district’s superintendent, said as many 40% of K-12 students in the county might not have internet at home...
Still more.