Wednesday, March 03, 2021

Rural teachers struggle to connect during pandemic with students who lack adequate internet access

About 15 million K-12 students in the United States lack adequate internet access for participating in distance learning, Aallyah Wright reports for Stateline.

"The problem is especially acute in poor and rural communities, where the pandemic-driven switch to remote education has been particularly challenging. Nearly a year after Covid-19 upended schools, many rural educators still struggle to reach and engage with students," Wright reports. "Teachers say they worry about the mental health and well-being of the students they can’t see. And students miss deadlines and the chance to forge relationships with their peers, threatening both their academic achievement and social development. While these issues affect students in urban and suburban areas, they can be worse for rural schools, whose sizes often allow for close-knit student, teacher and community relationships."

Many state and rural education agencies have tried to help, using federal pandemic-relief aid for wi-fi hotspots or provide internet access and devices to families. But many rural districts are obliged to hand out paper packets when students don't have internet access. "This furthers educational inequities because paper packets do not afford students the opportunity for teacher-student interaction the way a traditional classroom setup does," Wright reports.

Even when rural schools do internet learning, they're less likely to help students access it. "A study by the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a nonpartisan research center, found that of 477 school systems across the country conducting remote learning, rural school districts were less likely to provide students with hotspots or devices than urban districts," Wright reports. "About 48% of urban school districts provided hotspots, 20 percentage points more than rural school systems. And 84% of urban school districts provided devices, almost double the number of rural ones."

Rural teachers shared with Wright the creative strategies they've adopted to help students with inadequate or no internet access participate in distance learning; students shared how the lack of access makes them feel frustrated and isolated. One rural education expert noted that schools are often one of the easier ways rural students can access mental-health services, but the pandemic means those kids could be falling through the cracks. 

"Stephen Pruitt, president of the Southern Regional Education Board, a nonpartisan nonprofit that works to improve public education, said it is essential to 'find out how many students became invisible' during the pandemic. Students who faced trauma, social isolation or just didn’t show up, he said, need support," Wright reports. "Pruitt said states should survey students and families to identify the barriers to internet access, from cost to megabyte usage."

"There’s got to be a really deliberate attention to a long-term plan for how you build and sustain infrastructure," Pruitt told Wright. "This is not just an education issue. This is something that states need to take on as an economic driver."

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