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Lack of Broadband Handcuffs At-Home Schooling in Ohio

As Columbus, Ohio, students look toward a school year with largely online learning, a new report shows that more than 30 percent of households in some city neighborhoods don't have broadband access.

by Rita Price and Alissa Widman Neese, Columbus Dispatch / July 2, 2020
Cybercriminals have been using the coronavirus to entice victims into online scams. Shutterstock/Song_about_summer

 As Columbus, Ohio, students look toward a school year with largely online learning, a new report shows that more than 30% of households in some city neighborhoods don't have broadband access.

The gap is not due to lack of infrastructure — internet service providers are available in even the most-impoverished areas — but the result of economic factors, technical literacy and personal choice, researchers said.

Community leaders who came together to discuss the report, which was commissioned by the Columbus Foundation and released Wednesday, say it highlights a problem that must be addressed to ensure that thousands of young people are not disadvantaged by the shift to remote education during the coronavirus pandemic.

Internet service is now "the fourth utility," on par with electricity, natural gas and water, said Pat Losinski, president and CEO of the Columbus Metropolitan Library.

"I don't know if we've called it out that way as a community and a nation, but it really is," he said

The Columbus library system handles about 1.6 million reservations for computer use each year, Losinski said.

"We have been trying to do the best that we can to serve that need," he said. "But what's happened in the last 120 days is this issue has been laid bare in ways it hadn't been in the past."

The report also discusses potential short- and long-term solutions: subsidies; hot spots; expanded Wi-Fi in public spaces such as parks, community centers and pedestrian areas; and public-private partnerships to help make sure that high-speed internet access is available to all.

"Educating kids in a pandemic is going to be the sole responsibility of the school district, and ultimately the teachers, but we're going to need help," said John Coneglio, president of the Columbus Education Association, the union that represents teachers. "The business community has come out over and over again asking us for handouts in the way of tax abatements. Now we need them."

The 50,000-student school district has worked to bridge the digital divide, distributing more than 20,000 Chromebook laptops and more than 1,000 wireless hot-spot devices by early June.

Still, Chief Information Officer V. Vandhana Veerni said in an email that nearly 1 in 4 students, or 22%, did not participate in virtual learning opportunities in the spring after schools closed, and many more were limited in how much they could participate.

The gaps are "due in part to a lack of access to high-quality internet or limited technology literacy," Veerni said.

Officials said the district has not traditionally tracked household internet access, but it plans to do so.

The 65-page report produced by AECOM, an international civil infrastructure research and planning company, aims to present a picture of broadband in Columbus. Data was compiled from sources such as the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey, local schools and the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission.

According to the 2017 American Community Survey data, which includes some of the most recent and complete information available on reported broadband access, more than two dozen Columbus census tracts had at least 30% of households without fixed internet. Several were above 40%, and one approached 60%. Many others were below the 30% mark but still had significant access deficits.

The areas also mirror many of the city neighborhoods where Columbus students were not logging in to the district's online platform for schoolwork.

"The big takeaway from this report is that it's not really about infrastructure," said Matt Martin, community research and grants management officer at the Columbus Foundation. "It's deeper. It's about affordability, it's about devices."

The foundation said there will be more investigation of the reasons, such as whether families can't afford to spend $50 a month for internet service or don't have tablets or computers.

"For a lot of people, their phone might have been sufficient four or five months ago," Martin said. That changed in a flash, with students learning remotely and many parents working from home, too.

Losinski, the library chief, said leaders in government, business and the nonprofit field now have the data they need to discuss solutions. "Hopefully, we've created a resource that's going to help the planners plan and implement what we need."

©2020 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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