Without Internet Access, Students And Teachers In Rural Areas Struggle To Keep Up

May 23, 2020
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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

One in 4 Americans don't have access to high-speed internet at home, and yet a reliable connection has become an essential part of the school day. In rural Massachusetts, some students and teachers are flocking to parking lot hotspots for free Wi-Fi. From member station WBUR, Carrie Jung has this report.

CARRIE JUNG, BYLINE: For 18-year-old Natalie Szewczyk, the only way to get Internet at home is through cell service, and that's spotty at best. So in order to do schoolwork, she has to leave the house.

NATALIE SZEWCZYK: Got my bag. I'm heading out the door.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR DOOR OPENING)

JUNG: Szewczyk's go-to spot for Wi-Fi has been a nearby elementary school parking lot in rural Ashfield, Mass. And she's got a whole system worked out to turn her Toyota Corolla into a mobile workstation.

SZEWCZYK: I stay in my driver's seat. I push my feet all the way back, and then I prop my Chromebook on the steering wheel with, like, my work on the passenger seat.

JUNG: The setup is not ideal. She explains it's often hard to communicate with teachers if she has a question when she's finishing work at home.

SZEWCZYK: It kind of blows my mind that people can, like, wake up and, like, just open their computer, check their assignments that they have, plan out their day and, like, oh, I'll do this thing, and then I'll do another assignment, and then make lunch.

JUNG: And the connectivity issues aren't just affecting students around here. A lot of teachers in Ashfield, like Tracey Pinkham, are filling up parking lots, too.

TRACEY PINKHAM: In the parking lot today, I can see one, two, three, four other cars.

JUNG: She teaches her high school social studies class from the passenger seat of her car.

PINKHAM: It's such a different way to teach. And it's a new normal which is, you know, hard to adjust to (laughter).

JUNG: A survey from the Pew Research Center found that about 27% of Americans don't have high-speed Internet access at home. For some, it's an affordability issue, and for others, like Szewcyzk and Pinkham, it's because at-home broadband service just isn't available in their remote communities.

JESSICA ROSENWORCEL: It is as clear of a reminder as could be that this nation has a digital divide, and this crisis has revealed that like nothing before.

JUNG: Jessica Rosenworcel is a commissioner with the Federal Communications Commission. She says reliable internet shouldn't be considered a luxury anymore.

ROSENWORCEL: Students are going to struggle in this environment. If they don't have an internet connection at home, many of them will be locked out of classrooms.

JUNG: The federal government has been putting some effort into expanding access. Since the 1990s, the FCC has been running a program called E-rate to help communities bring broadband infrastructure to libraries and schools. But Rosenworcel says the agency could be doing a lot more.

ROSENWORCEL: It's time for the FCC to be creative about using the authority it has with programs like E-rate so that it can support schools getting kids connections at home.

JUNG: Until that happens, students and teachers like Natalie Szewczyk and Tracey Pinkham will continue logging on from the parking lot.

For NPR News, I'm Carrie Jung in Boston.

MARTIN: Tomorrow, we'll have more on how the pandemic is affecting students by focusing on middle schoolers. We'll hear from a middle school counselor about how social distancing is affecting her students. And we'll also speak with Dr. Cara Natterson, a pediatrician who writes a lot about child development, about ways to keep middle schoolers healthy and engaged during the pandemic. That's on tomorrow's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.