September 21, 2020

No internet? The unusual ways some Kansas City area students access online classes

Knowing that several of his kids’ friends are relying on cellphone data or spotty internet to stream hours-long Zoom classes each day, Brian Connell decided to turn his Olathe basement into a classroom.

His family enjoys gigabit speed from Google Fiber. But he said many of his daughter’s classmates at Olathe North High School are hanging on by a thread, relying on sluggish internet to get through the school day. So he’s opened his doors, offering access to his Wi-Fi and extra computers.

“There’s a huge discrepancy,” he said. “We’re really worried about them. It’s not equal.”

But it’s not just a problem for some Olathe students: With most urban and suburban schools in the Kansas City area relying on virtual education or hybrid models of teaching during the pandemic, many local school systems and families have been scrambling to find ways to keep their kids connected — a challenge exacerbated by the huge number of professionals still working from home.

“We live in an area where there’s a lot of affluence and then a lot of non-affluence,” Connell said. “It’s like saying if you can swim, or if you can’t swim, you’re all in the same boat. And if a storm comes, that’s what everybody’s worried about. They’re all holding their breath.”

Schools have dispatched thousands of mobile hot spots to allow kids to connect with teachers over cellphone networks. Churches, YMCAs and libraries have opened their doors to allow students to access their internet. And some schools have beefed up their signals so kids can get on Wi-Fi in the parking lots.

Those moves are all evidence of the persisting digital divide: Even as technology becomes ever ubiquitous, many children in rural, urban and suburban areas still struggle to access reliable internet.

Last spring, Missouri school districts told state officials that nearly a quarter of all students lacked sufficient internet access. In Kansas, school districts recently estimated that more than 48,500 students lack broadband access at home.

“I was surprised. That’s almost 10%,” Deputy Commissioner Dale Dennis said at last week’s Kansas state board of education meeting. “You’d think in some districts that everybody ought to have access, but that’s not necessarily the case.”

He emphasized it was not a question of whether families could afford quality internet, but specifically whether they had access to it. And while the lack of rural broadband has become a well documented issue, the internet divide also affects kids in urban and suburban areas as well.

In the state survey, the Shawnee Mission district estimated that more than 1,700 students do not have internet access, out of its roughly 27,000 students. The Olathe district reported that 1,350 students do not have broadband at home.

“Look at Johnson County. There’s a house everywhere in Johnson County, but they have a number that don’t have access. I was surprised by that too,” Dennis told the state board.

The problem started long before the pandemic, but experts say the divide has widened.

“It has been an issue of concern for several years,” said Leah Fliter, director of governmental relations for the Kansas Association of School Boards. “It’s just that the pandemic has really magnified how big that gap between the internet have and have-nots really is.”

A patchwork of solutions

Before the pandemic, tens of thousands of students lacked high-speed internet access at home. That meant families would go to local libraries or even fast-food restaurant parking lots to access Wi-Fi for homework needs.

“It’s a problem if you can’t get on to do your homework,” Fliter said. “But when your whole school day is predicated on having internet access, or you’re relying on your cell phone data, that’s a real problem.”

The pandemic has only worsened the digital divide for students. With tens of thousands of workers grappling with layoffs and furloughs, families have had to cut back on household spending. And for those with cellphones as a backup, internet service can be the first thing to go.

Now, students who are learning virtually all day are relying on the internet service at churches and libraries. And many school districts have bought mobile hot spots to help fill the void at home.

“A hot spot is better than nothing,” Fliter said. “But most folks would probably say it’s not ideal.”

Across the Kansas City metro area, hot spots have also become an important stopgap: Kansas City Public Schools alone has distributed more than 6,000 hot spots to families. The district has also handed out nearly 15,000 laptops and iPads.

“We have spent millions of dollars on technology,” said district spokeswoman Kelly Wachel.

To help bridge the divide, Missouri’s education department will issue $30 million in grants from federal coronavirus relief funds to help schools expand Wi-Fi networks and provide Wi-Fi-enabled devices for students.

Brent Ghan, deputy executive director of the Missouri School Boards Association, said the challenge is twofold: Many areas, particularly in rural parts of the state, lack broadband service entirely. But affordability is another major challenge for families in both rural and urban areas.

Schools are doing what they can to help by handing out hot spots and devices. Some have even deployed school buses to bring hot spots to students at home.

But Ghan said the association would like to see a more comprehensive statewide effort to expand internet connectivity and technology access to all students.

“Access to the internet has now become a utility all students need, just like electricity,” he said

Spring Hill’s broadband woes

The internet service at Taylor Calvert’s home was so unreliable that she couldn’t fathom how her kids would manage virtual learning.

Like many local school districts, Spring Hill decided older students would learn at home this fall as the number of coronavirus cases surged in the area. But the internet connection was so poor that she decided to pull the plug on it and the local public school system.

“My kids are home-schooled and not affected by poor internet because we don’t have internet to even suffer from,” Calvert said. “We decided to home-school because of that very reason.”

After years of paying for spotty and sluggish internet, her family recently cut the cord. She’s still waiting for more providers to come to her neighborhood, or for the city to finalize a plan to bring fiber internet to town. But in the meantime, she is home-schooling her children, knowing that her kids are unable to sit on the computer in online classes for hours each day — and that students could be in virtual classes much of this school year.

Residents of Spring Hill, located off of U.S. 169 in southern Johnson County, have battled unreliable and slow internet for years. The city studied the problem for months and tried to jump-start a fiber build-out by making its own investment in a local network. But that effort stalled as locals raised suspicions of corruption in a contracting decision for a new city-funded fiber line.

Spring Hill Mayor Steven Ellis sought an independent investigation, and Johnson County District Attorney Steve Howe said his office was “following up” on the complaint about the issue.

In the meantime, many families are doing whatever they can to help their kids attend online classes.

City spokeswoman Kate Shupert said Spring Hill has opened the doors of its civic center to allow students to access the city’s network during weekdays. The city also plans to apply for grant funding to purchase hot spots and partitions that would allow more students to safely work at the city building as many families still struggle with internet service at home.

“I know it is still a big concern among residents,” Shupert said.

The Spring Hill district also purchased hot spots and increased Wi-Fi coverage in its school parking lots, said spokeswoman Misty Eytcheson.

The district also has prepared for the possibility of internet outages throughout the school day — something that many Spring Hill residents are frequently frustrated by. District officials said that students will be given offline assignments if outages last for a day or two.

Eytcheson said the first days of school, with older students learning online and elementary students returning to classrooms, have “gone well, but some families have struggled with their internet providers.” To help students, the district has sought to partner with a service provider to offer free or more affordable internet to students who qualify for free and reduced priced meals.

“The district is very interested in being part of a solution that would enable our students to fully participate in their education in an equitable way with their classmates.”

Virtual doesn’t mean kids stay home

Schools moved to virtual classrooms to keep students apart in attempts to slow the spread of the coronavirus. But just because kids are learning remotely doesn’t mean they’re doing so at home.

Many parents have had to move kids to child care centers or relatives’ homes as they balance work schedules. And a lack of internet access has forced others to congregate at central locations.

In Gardner, Restoration Church is renting out a large event space, where students can come, get on the Wi-Fi and log in to their online classes. Pastor Dave Holland said church leaders realized there was a need for such a space in the southwestern Johnson County town, where high-speed internet is not a given.

“We know that Zoom calls require fast internet speeds and many families — especially those with multiple school age kids — don’t have fast enough data speeds to support the calls,” Holland said. “By renting a business space, it gives us access to higher data speeds, hosting multiple internet access points, and it’s a neutral space so our community doesn’t feel like they need to be a part of our church family to benefit.”

Across the Kansas City metro, the YMCA is assisting roughly 800 students with online learning. John Mikos, president and CEO, said the YMCA of Greater Kansas City has partnered with area churches and Johnson County Community College to offer large, open spaces for students to log in to their virtual classes.

At the Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, students are keeping their distance, spread apart in the sanctuary and other rooms, with their laptops and iPads. YMCA staff members, some former teachers or paraprofessionals, are there to tutor students and offer supplemental lessons in between classes, such as games or activities related to the lesson plans.

“When we decided to launch this, our two primary goals were to help working parents and households that didn’t have internet connectivity,” Mikos said. “Predominantly, the majority of those participating in the program are families who are working and have no other options available for them because they can’t work from home. But we do know there are households where internet connectivity is a problem as well.”

Across the area, public libraries have also helped students that need internet access. The Basehor Community Library has checked out mobile hot spots to patrons, both for adults working from home and for students learning remotely.

Likewise, the Basehor-Linwood School District has handed out 25 mobile hot spots, with several students on a waiting list for the devices. District spokeswoman Ashley Razak said those devices have helped students in outlying areas that lack reliable service.

The school district is using a hybrid model with students attending in-person some days and online others. So far, virtual learning has worked fairly well. But Razak said the district has another backstop for students who have problems with home internet.

“Our parking lots all have access to our USD 458 network,” she said. “So if students are desperate for internet, they can come to the parking lot.”

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