Help coming for school families on wrong side of digital divide

Nine to 12 million families nationally have no internet access.

More Butler County school families struggling with slow or no access to the internet are getting help in closing the once-wide “digital gap” that forces their children to go without options for online homework enjoyed by some of their classmates.

The latest bridging effort in the county took place last week at the Rochester Hills mobile home community in the Monroe school district as another private, high-speed internet provider has joined the push to help students in households with no digital opportunities or slow internet access at home.

A sunny afternoon saw residents greeted by a large altafiber company sign-up stand and half-a-dozen staffers at the entrance of their community just off of Ohio 4.

It’s a scene predicted to be repeated soon in other “under-served” neighborhoods across Butler County, said company officials.

The internet and cable TV provider was joined by the Monroe’s school superintendent and Butler Tech officials at the free internet sign up site. All were brought together for a common cause — providing more and faster wireless internet access for needy students and their families.

“This is so important for families that live in this community,” said Robert Buskirk, superintendent of Monroe Schools, which provides learning laptops to age-appropriate students.

“School nowadays is so dependent on access to internet and all of our students have their own (digital) devices and if they can’t use them at home to work on their projects and their homework, it puts them at an incredible disadvantage,” said Buskirk as he joined in greeting Rochester residents at the sign-up event.

Butler Tech officials said leveling the playing field of internet access is the goal of the new program.

They said the project addresses an equity issue based on geographic access and the Rochester Hills community “was considered underserved prior to this collaboration with altafiber, because they could only get the minimum level broadband internet access which may have been spotty, unreliable, or not up to the 100 Mbps standartd.”

But the digital gap isn’t unique to Monroe or other Butler County communities, nor many other school systems statewide and nationally.

Data from the Federal Communications Commission indicates there are 195,000 Ohio addresses “unserved,” meaning they couldn’t get broadband internet.

Another 139,000 are also “underserved,” meaning they can potentially get the minimum level broadband internet, but it’s spotty, unreliable, or not up to the 100 Mbps upload standard. Upwards of 4 million Ohio addresses are served by high-speed broadband.

Nationally, studies vary, but in general they estimate nine to 12 million school families have no internet access.

Long a chronic problem prior to the onset of COVID-19 onset in March 2020, the pandemic and its historic school shutdowns brought the internet needs of low-income or under-served communities into stark focus.

Local school systems like Middletown Schools had some teachers forced to hand-deliver and pick up paper assignments to some families whose children lacked internet access or functional digital speeds – and in some cases laptops.

Forced to scramble by the pandemic’s subsequent and periodic school closings in the 2020-2021 school year, districts reached out to local internet and cable TV providers like Spectrum and other companies as they scrambled to cobble together funding for free school laptops and internet access to help students keep pace when forced to learn from home.

The renewed focus on digital disparities for some students was a rare positive from the pandemic, said Buskirk.

And the injection of private company funding from altafiber and other companies, combined with federal and state school funding through Broadband Ohio, coordinated through Butler Tech and Butler County Educational Services Center and local schools, has been a game changer, he said.

“It all really helps to close the gap in the digital divide.”

The sometimes wide disparities in funding of Butler County’s public school systems has meant a wide-range of disjointed progress when comparing various districts’ as they try to meet students’ digital needs for learning at home.

Talawanda Schools was the first in the county to provide learning laptops to its students during the 2015-2016 school year.

“Talawanda leaders were very forward thinking in developing ways and also planning in the district budget to provide this technology for students,” said Holli Hansel, spokeswoman for the district.

“Talawanda and all educational institutions are increasingly utilizing technology in their instruction each year, and many students are really drawn to using technology as they learn,” Hansel said.

“The biggest issue that we faced during that time and even still today is the lack of internet in some rural areas of our district, where the topography is very difficult and so broadband and fiber internet is not available.”

“Many partners have come together to provide internet in some community areas, which is helpful,” she said.

Among other local districts taking the digital lead pre-pandemic was the 17,200-student Lakota Schools in 2019, which rolled out free laptops for all students over two school years.

But some districts, such as the financially struggling and smaller Edgewood Schools — and other similar-sized and largely rural communities — are still limited to only providing laptops to students while they are in school with no take-home option.

“We have (laptop) book carts for classroom use of computers,” said Edgewood Superintendent Kelly Spivey.

“For students needing wireless internet for home activities we do have a home device that provides hotspots that operate from cell phones which families can request. For students doing remote learning, we allow them to check out a (laptop) upon request,” said Spivey, whose district is seeking voter approval of an earned income school tax on the May 2 ballot.

Spivey, who was hired as full-time superintendent in February, said the issue of greater digital accessibility for all students is a topic “we will be reviewing the strategic plan in the fall with our community.”

Hamilton, Middletown Schools’ needy school families helped

Digital equity was crucial during the pandemic and continues to be essential, said Mike Holbrook, superintendent of the 9,000-student Hamilton Schools.

“The availability of district technology for students was invaluable during the pandemic and allowed for meaningful instruction to continue when schools were shut down,” said Holbrook.

“Hamilton City Schools has made it a priority to close the digital divide between students and technology. Hamilton is a one-to-one district and every student has a device to take home. The district has a process for families to apply for a wifi hotspot if wifi is not available at home,” he said.

Former Middletown Schools Superintendent Marlon Styles Jr., who moved on to another job earlier this year, included “digital equity” among his sweeping reform goals launched when first hired in 2017.

Middletown Schools has 100% eligibility designation for its 6,000 students, should school parents apply, for free and reduced school meals for low-income families.

Now under the leadership of new Superintendent Deborah Houser, Middletown continues to emphasis signing up school families for free internet while providing students with laptops for home study.

For Middletown school parent Alinda Leak and her two school-age children, the offer of free internet for her kids to sign on to for their school laptop homework was met with initial suspicion.

“It sounded too good to be true,” Leak said.

But door-to-door offers brought to her home by staffers of Spectrum, the local internet provider, and T-Mobile, which provides a mobile wifi-box so kids can access the internet via their school laptop away from home, eventually convinced her the opportunity was legitimate.

“I signed up two years ago and we are still on the program and I haven’t paid a dime,” she said.

“It’s meant a 100 percent difference for us and my kids. They can now not only focus at school on their work but they can also focus at home as well.”

More communities under-served by slow internet will soon see similar offers.

Jason Praeter, president of consumer & small business for altafiber, said its recent internet access expansion campaign in Monroe — coordinated through Butler Tech and the BCESC — is only the first step to a wider, partnered action in other Butler County school communities.

“All of the partners view this (Monroe) project as a roadmap for how we can address this issue in many other communities throughout the region,” said Praeter.

“High-speed internet is essential for individuals to fully access educational, job and health care opportunities and altafiber is committed to creating digital equity throughout the communities that we serve.”

About the Author