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Distance Learning Despite the Broadband Gap

A teacher in Eastern Kentucky shares his experience transitioning to remote teaching in a school district where 30 percent of students lack high-speed internet access.

By Jessica Fregni

April 7, 2020

Jonathan Stephens in his classroom

Last fall, I visited Appalachian Eastern Kentucky—a region where access to high-speed internet at home can be sparse and expensive, or sometimes not even an option at all—to learn about the rural broadband gap. While in Eastern Kentucky, I witnessed the many technological challenges that educators in Appalachia face, as well as the creative solutions teachers and community leaders have come up with to ensure kids are receiving an excellent education.

Despite being just as capable and ready to learn, millions of rural students in communities like Appalachia are falling behind their urban and suburban peers in the digital age due to lack of access to high-speed internet. Many students are forced to find workaround solutions, like using the Wi-FI at local fast food restaurants or going up on nearby mountains to get strong cell service, in order to get their homework done. 

Now, in the time of COVID-19, that broadband gap is growing even larger. With schools closed and federal guidelines advising Americans to avoid non-essential travel and gatherings, families, educators, and students in Appalachia are being forced to quickly adjust to the realities of distance learning—with or without adequate internet access.  

I reconnected with Jonathan Stephens (Appalachia ‘18), a high school chemistry teacher, to talk about what distance learning looks for his students in Lynn Camp High School in Knox County, Kentucky. An estimated 30 percent of students in the Knox County Public School district lack access to reliable high-speed internet. Jonathan shares what’s working, what’s not working, and what teachers in rural areas need to ensure students are able to learn and overcome the growing digital divide in the time of COVID-19.

When did your school begin distance learning? 

Our last day was Friday the 13th, ironically; it was ominous. That Friday was a wild day. Everyone just started making copies for those kids who don't have internet access, of course. Then, starting March 23rd, we had to truly begin our remote teaching. We had a lag there, but it was for everyone to assess where we were and what the game plan was going to be. That's our transition—which was, I'll say, not the smoothest—but also almost every school in the state, and in most of the country, was in a similar situation.

How is distance learning going so far? 

For my regular chemistry classes, I'm slowly getting more and more students reaching out and submitting assignments via email, Google Classroom, and social media. I have started Zoom meetings for "office hours" so they can check in at least once a week if they have internet access. For those who don't have access, they can call a phone number to request printed work. When done, they can drop it off at the school.

I also created a Facebook group for my regular chemistry students because I don't think all that many have Google Classroom or at least utilize it, but most of them have the Facebook app. I have 20 to 30 students on the Facebook group now, which is really awesome because that's almost half of my students. I see a few active on there and get class work submissions from them. I post all of our assignments on there, but I also post funny chem memes for the students. They'll post funny memes too, different things that just brighten their day hopefully.

For my AP class, which is smaller, the Zoom meetings allow us to continue almost as if we were still in class. I feel limited in the types of activities we can do, which is unfortunate, but that comes with the current situation. My students get regular assignments, quizzes, and resources via Google Classroom. I conduct labs via Zoom and my students complete their lab notebooks either in the moment, or while looking over the video or notes. 

And I’ve been using Zoom breakout rooms, putting my students into groups of two or three to discuss essential questions, then checking in with them. I think they liked it because not everybody speaks up during the whole group, so when I popped into groups of two, they were all chatting about the topics. 

Yes, there's a lot of positives, especially now that we're recording lessons. I try to record those meetings and then upload them to Google Classroom, so anybody who has work or has to babysit—which I get a lot—can check back in with that video when they are able.

© Photo Jacob Biba On a regular day, Jonathan Stephens would be teaching chemistry in his classroom with his students. But with schools closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Jonathan and millions of other teachers across the country must do their teaching remotely now.

What are some supports the students are getting from the school during this period of distance learning?

Our students are getting lunches for every weekday delivered two days per week by the bus drivers and students can reach out via our drivers and helpers at the very least. They are also providing printed school assignments upon request by calling a district hotline number. But we know that not every phone number is accurate due to various shifts in family situations, so there is a chance that some fall through the cracks. 

Students in our area often have challenging living situations. Some homes have several families, and other students may be staying with friends due to difficult situations. This means that contact information, even when originally accurate, may no longer be accurate due to the current social distancing measures.

Could you say more about that? What kind of challenges are students facing as a result of COVID-19? 

For example, we have many students who are raised by grandparents. Due to the threat to older citizens or even parents and guardians with conditions such as lung disease, black lung, or diabetes, some students are not at their primary place of residence. If they have no internet access, this makes it especially difficult to continue their education with printed materials for the simple fact that it is difficult to find these students.

Additionally, the changing employment situation means that many of our students now have to provide child or elder care. On the other hand, high school students with former part-time jobs are now working full-time to help provide for the family. This means they are unable to spend as much time on their studies. This has played a role in my AP Chemistry class and I've needed to consider this when it comes to deadlines and workload. 

Lastly, our healthcare facilities are struggling with staffing and resources. The cancellation of elective procedures resulted in the furlough of 500 medical workers. Considering that these are major employers in the region, this has serious implications on the ability of families to afford internet service. There are many challenges to remote instruction and learning in addition to connectivity and it is important to consider these compounding factors.

What are some things you wish you could be doing with distance learning right now that you can’t, due to the circumstances of internet access?

While regular "pencil and paper" assignments are continuing, it is difficult to teach content without many of the hands-on activities that are best done in class, such as molecular models, group work, and labs. 

These activities are oftentimes what's needed for students to really understand a concept, so that's a challenge. Regarding group work, that's a huge component of school for developing social skills in our students and while some get a similar experience via Zoom, most do not.

One thing I’ve done is that I’ve added a “Just For Fun” category in Google Classroom. Last week I assigned a science podcast and generally those don't require as much data for internet streaming so hopefully more kids can access it. They could just listen to that, type up a response, and submit it for some extra bonus points. Just so that they have something to do that's relevant. 

Internet Inequity is Education Inequity

From South Dakota to Eastern Kentucky, millions of children in rural communities are falling behind in school, simply because high-speed internet is unreliable or unavailable in their communities. This broadband gap will only continue to widen during the pandemic. Five Teach For America corps member and alumni teachers share their worries about their students falling through the cracks in the transition to remote learning amid COVID-19.

What do you think it would take to fix this problem? What do you want from the government, from education leaders, and others to make distance learning more successful for your students?

If we want to have a successful society, we need educated citizens. For education to happen, you must have some kind of engagement, whether in-person, online, or from printed materials. While some students are able to read and comprehend at a high level, this isn't always the case. Those who lack reading ability might do better with audio and video provided by an instructional video. They will likely do better when they can ask the teacher a question in the moment as they learn new concepts. 

From government and leadership in general, I'm asking for a push for full connectivity. Students need the internet to access educational resources. While some might think it is optional or superfluous, those folks must be okay with a continued existence of severe poverty as that's what a lack of education guarantees. If we want a successful society stemming from educated citizens, we must provide all options for learning.

Lastly, how are you dealing with the stress of everything?

I'm making the most of our current situation. We are all in this together and we can only do our best, so that's what I'm trying to do. While I have yet to find a balance between my personal life and work during the extended school closure, I make it a point to take breaks and stay connected with friends and family. Personally, I just try to keep busy.

A lot of our seniors are really upset. Their sports seasons are being cancelled and we were just about to start baseball. It’s really challenging to see that. But we’re all in the same boat and with the whole practice of staying at home and all of that, we’re going to save people’s lives, hopefully.

It really helps to get check-ins from students. When they reach out to say "Hey, here's your assignment" and I ask, "How are you doing?" They’ll say, "I'm making it." 

It's not much, but it's what we got right now. We're doing the best we can. Hopefully it clears up sooner rather than later.

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

Click here to contact your member of Congress to request $2 billion to establish an Emergency Connectivity Fund to allow schools and libraries to provide Wi-Fi hotspots, connected devices, and mobile broadband internet services to children.