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When school started in Beaufort County in August, Chocowinity resident Dana Heath Darden’s sons signed onto remote classes using school-issued Chromebooks and hot spot routers.
The Dardens don’t have Wi-Fi because it’s prohibitively expensive for the family, so the hot spot was supposed to help the kids stay current with their coursework.
But the problems started right away.
One of Darden’s sons is a high school junior, and while his middle school brother could get by with the hot spot, the older boy couldn’t stream his coursework the way he needed. The honor student’s grades dropped, Darden said, and he became increasingly anxious.
Eventually, he decided to move in with a half-brother in Williamsport until in-person classes resume.
“Now we’re a broken family,” Darden said. The move will allow her son to maintain his grades, but it’s not optimal for the 16-year-old.
“He doesn’t have the support there that he does at home,” she said.
The Dardens are one of many families struggling with remote learning this semester. North Carolina public schools have been operating with fully or partially remote learning to limit exposure to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which presents a range of challenges for students in areas with limited broadband infrastructure.
According to the N.C. Broadband Infrastructure Office, or BIO, 1.6 million families in the state cannot access or afford home internet. Additionally, 261,000 live in areas with no service providers. In some rural communities, the few options that exist do not support large downloads, extensive streaming and the demands of multiple devices.
Getting providers to invest in these areas is a difficult sell, said BIO Director Jeff Sural, because internet access is not regulated or classified as an essential service.
“The industry is market-based, so the providers are going to go where they can sign up a significant number of customers to justify their return on investment,” Sural said.
“We’ve got a situation where in the remote and rural areas of our state, the market forces just aren’t working the way they are in more populous areas.”
However, the BIO is incentivizing providers to expand access through its Growing Rural Economies with Access to Technology, or GREAT, grant program. Gov. Roy Cooper recently announced the launch of several new initiatives that will provide service to thousands of households in rural countries. But even when providers sign on, it can take six months to two years to establish those connections, Sural said.
In the meantime, families in low connectivity areas struggle.
Buncombe County resident Pamela Smith said her family’s only service option at their home outside Black Mountain is satellite internet. But it doesn’t provide enough bandwidth for her four high-school-age daughters to participate in remote learning, even with the addition of a school-issued hot spot.
Instead of struggling at home, the oldest daughter, a senior, drives her sisters to the Broad River Fire Department, where they connect to the station’s hot spot and do their schoolwork from the car.
“Four kids, all day, for four or five hours, trying to Zoom and not have access to a bathroom or anything like that — it’s just not ideal,” Smith said of the setup.
Smith said she is concerned that the difficulties her kids have getting online will affect their grades. She’s particularly worried about her oldest daughter, who is looking at colleges.
But she’s seen all the kids become less motivated and said the lack of social interaction has caused some depression among the girls.
“I’m constantly trying to encourage them and hide my frustration, but I’m just as frustrated as they are,” Smith said. “We’ve all shed a few tears here and there.”
Amanda Anderson’s family lives in Buncombe County as well. When schools first closed at the start of the pandemic, she and her husband, Louis, scrambled to find a reliable internet connection so their sons, ages 11 and 14, could participate in classes.
Like the Smiths, the Andersons have satellite internet that proved insufficient for online learning.
In the spring, the Andersons’ youngest son would work on the front porch at neighbor Adrienne Hollifield’s home since her connection was stronger than the one at home.
Hollifield is 69, and her husband is 75, so they couldn’t risk having the boy work inside. But they let him come over as often as they could — Hollifield was doing her own Zoom course with Lenoir-Rhyne University, so she and the boy would take turns signing on ― even in chilly spring weather.
“Some days it was still really cold, and I’d say, ‘Here’s some hot chocolate, go over to your house and make it and then come back,’” Hollifield recalled.
After the day’s session ended, she would disinfect the table so she and her husband wouldn’t contract the virus and it would be safe for the Andersons’ son to use again the next day.
The connectivity challenges are nothing new for Hollifield. She struggled for years to get service on the property where she and her husband live and where the Andersons rent their home. When they had a dial-up line put in, “it was a godsend,” she recalled.
But as file sizes grew and streaming services became a mainstay, the connection proved inadequate. Hollifield pursued other options but was told that because of the remote area, there’s not much to be done unless providers invest in the infrastructure.
COVID-19 exacerbated the issue in unprecedented ways, particularly when it comes to education.
“Nothing’s really changed” since the spring, Anderson said of her family’s remote learning struggles, except for their routine.
Back to school virtually
Since the start of the new school year, Anderson toggles between dropping her sons off at the home of a friend who also has school-age children and taking them to the Crooked Creek Fire Department on days they can’t go to the friend’s house.
She and her husband work during school hours, so she can’t take the kids until she gets home. She sits in the car with her sons for two hours while they use the station’s hot spot, much as Pamela Smith’s daughters do at Broad River. They get home around 8 p.m. to make dinner and prepare for the next day.
But it doesn’t always work out.
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“Some days … I can’t get them somewhere because I’m so exhausted after working,” Anderson said.
Barry Pace, director of technology for Buncombe County Schools, said teachers are helping families who have ongoing access issues by giving students hands-on learning kits, thumb drives loaded with assignments and alternative assignments as needed.
All public school students in Buncombe County receive an iPad or a Windows laptop, depending on their grade level, so the key issue is proximity to reliable internet.
But for students who are not in range of a cell tower or whose families can’t afford home internet, there is no quick fix.
Darden, Smith and Anderson all said they want their children to be back in school full time as soon as possible and that the negative impacts of remote learning outweighed any concerns about the virus. It’s a sentiment echoed by other parents in Facebook threads about different schools’ remote learning decisions.
“I know that this virus is real,” said Smith, who is a nurse.
“But I also feel that if we’re smart about this and we can all make sure our kids are behaving responsibly, I think we can make it work. We just have to put in the effort to do it and try to get back to normal.”