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curiousKC | Addressing the Homework Gap

Can students without internet access and devices get an equitable education?

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Above image credit: The Black family's satellite dish outside of their home. When it snows, they have to knock packed snow off of the dish to get a connection. (Jacob Douglas | Flatland)

Meagan Black lives just outside of Paola, Kansas. Over the last year her daughter, Bella, has attended school remotely due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Most of the time.

Due to sketchy connections and slow internet speeds, Bella has dropped out of sessions with her teacher, and has been unable to reconnect.

“She’ll be right in the middle of a class and the internet will go out,” Meagan Black said. “And she’s like, ‘oh man, I can’t finish the class.’ So she has to log back in later.”

Not only that, poor internet service has essentially forced the Black family to help homeschool their daughter during internet outages. Meagan, who worked in the school system for 11 years, does not expect to return to the profession during the pandemic.

The problem with internet connection and device access during remote learning has been on many educators minds over the last year. Nancy Cline, one former educator, sent in this question to curiousKC: “Is it possible to provide equally effective education across the area to all students without high-speed internet and hardware to go home?”

The answer from state education departments, teachers and parents was a resounding no.

In November, Jessica Denson, director of communications at Connected Nation, told Flatland that the digital divide is creating a “homework gap,” leaving kids without a connection behind.

“It’s like if you give one kid an encyclopedia and one kid a computer for a year and go ‘hey go do your homework’,” Denson said in November. “Who do you think is going to excel?”

Heather Eslinger is an art teacher in Olathe. She is new to the school district, and has some students she has never met in person. She says that some students are undoubtedly falling behind.

“If you have a kid who doesn’t have the appropriate devices, or the appropriate internet speeds, they’re just going to get behind and you’re never going to catch them up,” Eslinger said. “It’s like there is nothing you can do, I don’t think, to get them back to where they need to be, especially without that face to face interaction from teachers.”

Molly McGowin, chief communications officer of the Missouri Department of Secondary and Elementary Education, concurs.

“It is difficult to imagine how to provide equitable access to digital learning resources when not every child has access to necessary devices and internet connection at home,” McGowin wrote in an email. “Providing universal and affordable access to the internet is critical for education, teleworking and telemedicine in Missouri.”

The same sentiment was echoed in Kansas.

“School is probably the greatest equalizer to where kids can come from different backgrounds, from different family supports and different social emotional needs,” said Brad Neuenswander, deputy commissioner of the Division of Learning Services in the Kansas State Department of Education. “When you take that in-person out of the equation, and now try to provide the same types of support when they’re at home, you’re not (able to do that).”

According to a Kansas Health Institute study, one in four Kansas children live in a household without reliable high speed internet access. According to a Missouri Department of Secondary and Elementary Education study, just over 20% of students don’t have access to the internet, or their access is unknown. It’s important to note that the study did not account for a high speed internet access — defined as 25 megabits per second download. 3 megabits per second upload — just if a student could connect.

There has been no shortage of effort from schools to try and bridge the gap over the last year. Grants have been provided to schools at the federal and state level. The recently approved American Rescue Plan will award more than $800 million to Kansas schools, and nearly $2 billion in Missouri.

Money from these grants has gone toward hot spots to send home to students without adequate access. Most schools have provided laptops or tablets for students who don’t have access to a device. Additionally, schools have expanded their Wi-Fi to the parking lot, and allowed students to come in and connect there to do remote work.

Neuenswander said one district rigged a school bus to be a sort of mobile hotspot, and sent it to a neighborhood where there was a shortage of high speed internet.

But not everyone can take advantage of these solutions. Eslinger said while her school district expanded to the parking lot, not every kid could come to connect. If their parents are out working, and they need to stay home and look after younger siblings while remote learning, they cannot get to the school. The lack of access has only widened socio-economic gaps in schooling.

“That was frustrating, because even though they had the technology and they had the Wi-Fi, they had other responsibilities and couldn’t give as much attention to their academics as they needed,” Eslinger said.

Neuenswander hopes that districts will put more emphasis on reforming summer schooling to help kids who fell behind in remote learning.

“It’s so important that coming out of this we don’t try to recreate the summer school of the past,” he said. “Let’s build the relationships or really understand where they’re at. We can measure where they are academically, socially and emotionally. We have time to bring that student back to where they were. But we’re not going to be able to do it the way we used to do it in an old system. We have to think differently about it.”

Eslinger hopes to never do extended remote schooling ever again.

“I don’t really see it working for most students,” Eslinger said. “They are always going to have those few students where remote learning is ideal, and it does work. And I think that that should be an option if that’s something that that child needs or can flourish in.”

Jacob Douglas covers rural affairs for Kansas City PBS in cooperation with Report for America.

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