Just as public schools in the state are starting a new academic year with a heavy reliance on remote learning, about one in four students lack the Internet access needed to take the classes.
(TNS) — Just as public schools are starting a new academic year with a heavy reliance on remote learning, about 1 in 4 students lack the internet access needed to take the classes.
"We are in a much better position than we were four months ago, both devices and connectivity," said state Superintendent of Education Cade Brumley. "But we have a long way to go."
A new report released last week for the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education shows that 86% of Louisiana school districts are starting the school year with a combination of virtual and in-person classes.
However, the same review says an estimated 25% of students – around 179,000 statewide – lack the internet access crucial in gaining access to remote learning. A total of 403,000 households lack internet connections.
In addition, 42% of households go without high-speed internet access, called broadband, that allows multiple users in a home to do virtual learning.
"We are leaving a huge part of the state in the dark literally until we can overcome the problem we have with connectivity," state Sen. Beth Mizell, R-Franklinton, told a joint meeting of BESE and the state Board of Regents last week. Mizell is a member of the Senate Education Committee and a state leader of efforts to expand high-speed internet access.
Baton Rouge, New Orleans, Lafayette, Kenner and Metairie are among the eight cities in Louisiana listed on the 100 worst-connected cities in the country, according to a 2018 report done for the Census Bureau.
Households without high-speed internet include Baton Rouge, 16.57%; New Orleans, 22.04%; Lafayette, 11.80%; Kenner, 19.48% and Metairie, 17.83%.
The state Department of Education says 99% of private school students have internet at home.
The digital divide initially came to light in March, when the pandemic forced an end to in-person classes statewide and a sudden, heavy dose of virtual learning with mixed results.
Problems with teachers suddenly expected to teach students online and complaints from parents unable to keep their children in front of computers doing schoolwork for hours were just a few of the challenges.
Earlier this year Gov. John Bel Edwards opted to use $32 million of $50 million in discretionary federal dollars for computers and better internet access for public school students.
Progress has been made in getting computers and tablets into the hands of students.
The state Department of Education says 77% of students have school-issued devices for home use, and that all should have them be October and November.
But erecting a high-speed internet system is sort of like bringing electricity to rural areas – slow and expensive.
Jim Garvey, a Metaire attorney and the longest serving member of BESE, was one of the panelists who asked for an update on how students are faring in gaining access to online classes.
Garvey said the large number of students who lack internet access is worrisome.
"I think we have districts out there making plans to do the virtual learning and they haven't fully thought through how they are going to do it, particularly for students who do not have the access,'" he said.
Garvey said delays in getting computers to all students is also bothersome.
"Some of that equipment is on back order and will not be delivered for several more months," he said. "What are the school systems going to do between now and then?"
Both the East Baton Rouge and Orleans school districts are among those delaying in-person classes until after Labor Day, which is Sept. 7, because of concerns about the pandemic.
The preferred form of virtual learning – called synchronous – allows students and their classmates to interact with teachers in real time through online learning platforms.
The other method – called asynchronous – consists of students finishing work in an allotted time based on virtual tasks assigned by teachers.
The lack of internet access for 25% of students is forcing educators to scramble for short-term solutions.
Some are turning school buses into hot spots that can be stationed in different neighborhoods.
Libraries and other community spots are getting internet upgrades.
Local officials are negotiating with providers in hopes of gaining low-cost options and discount programs.
The Lafayette and Jefferson parishes school districts are cited by state education leaders for leading the way in coming up with solutions.
A Lafayette group called Link and Learn is partnering with another organization called Love Our Schools to provide home internet access for about 7,000 students.
Ryan Domengeaux, CEO and general counsel for the William C. Schumacher Family Foundation, told BESE those students "do not have a way to access the rest of the world."
Domengeaux said his group met with three internet providers asking for reduced prices.
Wi-Fi is now available in the parking lots of 42 schools.
Earlier this month the Lafayette Parish School Board allocated $1.5 million to provide short-term internet connectivity to students through its partnership with Link and Learn.
Jefferson Parish schools are working with Cox Communications to ensure all students have access to the internet, said Vicki Bristol, director of communications for the district.
Bristol said Cox has expanded its Connect2Compete, low-cost home internet program for qualified families, with charges of $9.95 per month and the first 60 days of free service.
Said Brumley, "We are working toward some intermediate solutions right now.
"But there has to be a larger conversation statewide about broadband for every child."
©2020 The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
Looking for the latest gov tech news as it happens? Subscribe to GT newsletters.