How to reach students without internet access during coronavirus? Schools get creative

As the coronavirus crisis worsens the impact of the digital divide, schools must rely on offline instruction to reach students.
Handwritten assignments like the one pictured here can be turned in at special homework drop boxes in Aberdeen, S.D.
Handwritten assignments like the one pictured here can be turned in at special homework drop boxes in Aberdeen, S.D.Jackie Mader / The Hechinger Report

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By Amadou Diallo, The Hechinger Report

This article about students without internet access at home was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.

On the Friday before spring break at Meigs Middle School in Decatur, Tennessee, special education teacher Matt Coe was busy preparing new lessons for his students now that schools were set to close because of the coronavirus crisis.

But while many districts around the country have moved to remote learning platforms like Google Classroom, Coe was using the school’s copy machine to put together printed packets for his students to take home. In this rural Tennessee county of just 12,000 residents, online learning simply isn’t an option for most families.

“A lot of our kids don’t have internet access,” said Coe, who knows students who routinely head to the library or the town’s McDonald’s to get online.

The Federal Communications Commission estimates that about 21 million Americans lack broadband access, while an independent research group reports that the actual number may be twice as high. As the coronavirus forces schools across the country to grapple with the challenges of providing remote learning, many schools and districts have had to get creative with low-tech forms of instruction that don’t require internet connections or digital devices.

Related: Helping kids who are feeling isolated and anxious after schools shut down

In Arkansas, where 23 percent of households lack internet service, and schools will be shut for the remainder of the school year, the local PBS affiliate is providing daily television programming tied to the state’s distance learning curriculum. The network got the idea from a similar arrangement that the Los Angeles Unified School District made with its own local PBS stations in mid-March.

“We saw what California was doing,” said the executive director of Arkansas PBS, Courtney Pledger. “We wanted to localize it even more by bringing in actual teachers to address the kids.”

Like all of the Arkansas teachers featured by local PBS stations in a statewide initiative, Stacey McAdoo has been a state Teacher of the Year.PBS Arkansas

The result is five hours of weekday programming for pre-K to eighth grade students, available to any household with a TV, hosted by a roster of Arkansas educators, all former state teachers of the year. Recording remotely from their homes or empty classrooms, the teachers introduce each episode by welcoming students to “class,” sharing how excited they are to meet everyone and talking briefly about the upcoming show; a recent lineup included “Peg + Cat,” a math program aimed at elementary-age kids, “Odd Squad,” which focuses on problem-solving and teamwork, and a “Nature” episode on the biomechanics of hummingbirds.

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Pledger said that the state’s education department approved all of the broadcast content and that the benefit goes beyond academics.

“Community engagement is a big element that kids are missing during this time, so to have an actual face of a teacher on the TV seemed like a good idea,” she said.

Arkansas math teacher Joel Lookadoo teaches students about geometrical shapes on the state's new TV-based education programming for children enrolled in kindergarten through eighth grade.PBS Arkansas

The programming also incorporates some interactive elements to keep kids engaged. One popular feature is a weekly vocabulary bingo game, with students on the lookout for words highlighted during the broadcasts. Students who collect all of their words for the week receive shoutouts or other tokens of recognition from their schools.

“I’ve gotten texts and emails from families saying: ‘Hey, we’re watching this morning. Thanks for doing this,’” said math teacher Joel Lookadoo, one of the hosts. “That’s really cool to know that you’re having a positive impact. It’s a great way to start the day.”

“We are heartbroken that we can’t be with our students right now,” added Courtney Cochran, another host, and an Arkansas teacher for 11 years. Being on TV “just brings back that little bit of that connection since we can’t be there physically.”

Cochran, now a high school principal, films her segments for grades three to five in her school’s now-empty art room. “We are a small rural school with only 270 students. And they are bursting at the seams with pride over seeing their classroom on TV,” even though the programming is for younger kids than the high school serves.

Courtney Cochran, a high school principal, introduces her co-hosts for Arkansas PBS's new educational programming: teachers Meghan Ables and Joel Lookadoo.PBS Arkansas

The state contracts with a separate vendor for its high school distance learning program, which does not provide a TV option.

Over-the-air educational programming is also available through Boston’s PBS affiliate, WGBH, which has devoted weekday afternoons on its WORLD television channel to science and social studies-themed shows aimed at middle school and high school students. As with the Arkansas effort, the schedule draws from existing PBS programming, and includes long-running series like “Nature” and “American Experience.” The channel is available to more than 170 PBS affiliates nationwide.

“For students who don’t have online access, we’re happy to be able to provide this,” said Seeta Pai, executive director of education at WGBH. In Massachusetts, she said, more than half of the households watching the WORLD channel during the first week of educational programming had incomes of less than $25,000 a year, a group far less likely to have reliable internet access.

In an effort to minimize screen time now that students are home all day, Rhode Island state education officials are promoting reading for leisure, with an at-home challenge for students to spend 20 to 60 minutes every day reading a book. Several public libraries in the state are providing curbside delivery of books to support the initiative, and many schools and districts are offering a free book pickup service with the help of local literacy groups.

Related: Evidence increases for reading on paper instead of screens

In South Dakota, the Aberdeen School District has put physical drop boxes at school entrances so that students who are receiving printed packets can hand in their homework. Texas’ Palestine Independent School District has partnered with the local paper to use unlocked newspaper vending machines as pickup stations for instructional packets.

Recognizing how important it is for students to maintain a sense of structure amid the upheaval of school closings, the Council Bluffs Community School District in Iowa has distributed a suggested daily schedule to its roughly 9,000 students, with time blocked out for physical exercise and quiet time, as well as household chores.

Another low-tech resource schools are tapping? School buses. Drivers in many districts continue to travel their regular routes, delivering meals and homework at their stops.

This is especially true in rural areas where many families are unable to make the trip to designated pickup sites. Students rely on the food and paper packets delivered to their driveways in the small Mary M. Knight School District in Washington state, said the district’s sole principal, Michael Marstrom.

“There are kids that live miles down a dirt road, and that just gets them to a paved road. There’s no sidewalks here,” he said. “There’s just not as much infrastructure. We don’t have internet. We can’t do any of that online stuff.”

Related: Should schools teach anyone who can get online — or no one at all?

For rural school districts that are committed to providing all of their students with options for digital learning, the transition is often a multistep process.

At Lincoln Middle School in West Virginia, principal Lori Scott estimates that about a quarter of the school’s 458 kids lack internet access at home. The district initially made instructional packets available at schools designated as meal distribution locations and also mailed some to students’ homes. Buoyed by a large turnout at these locations, the district now plans to deliver future packets electronically by expanding those schools’ Wi-Fi signals to cover their parking lots, allowing families to drive up and download the materials without having to leave their cars.

To accommodate students without digital devices, the district has been making iPads available. For those not able to make the trip, school buses have been converted into mobile hot spots, and will be stationed throughout the district, offering free broadband.

While these efforts are important and meaningful, everyone acknowledges that the learning challenges facing students extend beyond simply receiving educational materials, whether they come on paper, over the airwaves or in gigabytes.

“There’s a lot more distractions when kids are at home than when they’re sitting in a classroom,” said John Windhausen, executive director of the Schools, Health and Libraries Broadband Coalition, an advocacy group for wider internet access. “Many of them may not have a quiet area at home where they can concentrate.”

A large part of students’ social and emotional learning occurs through interactions with classmates and teachers, who can be some of the most reliable adults in many students’ lives. Teachers also keep track of where students are academically and anticipate what they will need next to continue to succeed, a skill even the most attentive parents may not have.

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For children with special needs, the problem is even more acute. Parents across the country are grappling with how to duplicate, on their own, the care their children were receiving in school from trained specialists and therapists. Many parents lack the time and expertise to continue this work. It’s something Coe, the special education teacher from rural Tennessee, was conscious of when assembling materials for his students.

“It was kind of a challenge to put those packets together with work that I felt my students could do, because we weren’t going to be there to modify it for them,” Coe said. Because of the wide range of needs in his class, no two student packets were identical. In his math lessons, some students are just learning how to read a menu and find the prices. Others can easily calculate the taxes and a tip.

Coe knows that districts, schools and teachers are all doing their best, but he worries about his students’ progress, both academically and emotionally. All he can do, he said, is try to provide whatever semblance of continuity he can.

“For the most part, we’re just trying to survive,” he said.

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Neal Morton, The Hechinger Report contributed.