Distance Learning Means Digital Disadvantage for Some

All online classrooms are not created equal.

Distance learning has been extended to May 1st by Governor Mike DeWine but thousands of Ohio students lack the high-speed internet access necessary to participate.

This has long been a problem in Ohio, where about 300,000 homes lack adequate internet.

The so-called Honework Gap has taken on new dimensions now that closed school districts have been trying to maintain a semblance of instruction by putting teachers or course materials online.

Complicating matters is that the free wi-fi spots students once depended on like public libraries, McDonald’s and Starbucks have closed their doors.

Regina Hennen and her family have been dealing with poor internet access for years at their home near Steubenville. They pay $120 a month for satellite internet but still have inferior connection speeds.

The school system shifted to online learning after closing in early March.

“We live in the country and our service is horrible,” said Hennen. “It takes three to four times as long to watch videos and to get things to upload even from their phones,” she said. “We have to drive somewhere till it sends then head back home.”

Hennen, who is a teacher, said she doesn’t blame the schools. “I do think it’s unbelievable that I can go on a mission trip to Guatemala -be in a cornfield in a tiny village and my phone works – come here to the U.S. and nobody can get me good Wi-Fi and internet and they charge a ton for nothing.”

Ohio House Bill 13 is legislation that would expand residential broadband throughout the state, most importantly to unserved areas that cable providers currently don’t go. Unfortunately, it won’t come soon enough help during this current crisis.

Representative Jay Edwards (R-Nelsonville) said HB 13 is one of the priority bills in the Ohio House.

Rep. Rick Carfagna is the bill’s primary sponsor and numerous others are working behind the scenes to develop a strategic plan to address affordability issues and necessary incentives to bring private internet providers on board.

“This is a longtime priority bill in the house,” said Edwards, who serves the 94th House District and is the Majority Whip.

Edwards said that the objective is to obtain top of the line technical service that is affordable.

“We can learn from other states that have taken on this problem and spent large amounts of money, and still ended up with slow internet speeds and spotty service,” said Edwards. “Every effort is being made to do this right.”

As millions of students nationwide are left at a disadvantage for an indefinite period of time in their education, some say that the Federal Communications Commission should take action and allocate funding for schools to loan Wi-Fi hotspots to students lacking home broadband.

The FCC should dedicate a special allocation of USF funds to reimburse schools and libraries that purchase and loan out Wi-Fi hotspots to students who live in homes that lack adequate broadband access, as FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworce and 16 U.S. Senators recently recommended.

Schools, libraries, and other community efforts can also use other strategies to extend broadband to the homes of unconnected students. For example, two school districts in southern Virginia use  TV Whitespace technology  – longrange Wi-Fi that uses the vacant television channels available in rural and small town areas—to extend the school’s internet connection with students at home.

Another option would be supporting and funding the use of school buses as Wi-Fi hotspots, as one district in Illinois has already adopted for the COVID-19 outbreak.