Communities were quick to rally around students with little or no access to reliable internet. Schools, libraries and businesses made their wi-fi available in parking lots. Charter Communications offered free internet for 60 days to families with K-12 and college students.
One Haywood County Schools teacher, who chose not to be named, said they made sure their students’ families were aware of the deal Charter was offering. The teacher helped one family with the installation process. The teacher said that now, over 60 days later, the family is once again disconnected from the internet.
Though these quick fixes have helped students get through the end of the school year, there are not solutions to the real issue. To better understand the breadth of the problem, several school systems conducted surveys to determine what proportion of students had readily available, reliable internet.
Haywood County Schools received 4,632 responses, well over 60 percent of the total student population. Results showed that 14.59 percent of students do not have reliable access to the internet in their home.
“We suspect, pretty strongly, that it’s higher than that,” said Superintendent Dr. Bill Nolte. “And our rationale is the people who didn’t respond probably have, in general, less access.”
Nolte said the results were troubling, especially while students were expected to complete all schoolwork, not just homework, at home.
“If it’s one student, it’s a problem … every student matters,” he said.
In Jackson County, results showed a similar proportion without access to the internet. Of students polled, 13 percent said they had no internet access. Another 22 percent said their access was limited by time or data.
Superintendent Dr. Kim Elliott said one of her biggest concerns is that even students who have internet at their house, may not have a strong enough connection to stream class, coursework or videoconferencing.
“There is a true lack of broadband connectivity in Jackson County. I myself as the superintendent have trouble with some Zoom calls from my home with regard to maintaining good connectivity,” Elliott said. “It’s not about connectivity per say — it’s about reliable connectivity.”
Both superintendents expressed concerns about the lack of cellphone coverage in their counties contributing to the problem.
“Oftentimes they will attempt to use their cellphones to garner access to the internet and of course depending on the region or the area geographically where they’re residing, that can be an issue in and of itself with cell phone coverage,” Elliott said.
Nolte said Haywood County Schools worked to provide and pay for hotspots for families that could not access internet. But for some families, even this wasn’t an option.
“There are situations where it wouldn’t even benefit them to provide them with a hotspot because the cell service in that particular community or cove or valley or mountain is just not good enough even if we provided something that we could afford on a short term basis,” said Nolte.
In Macon County, 24 percent of students who responded to the survey reported a lack of internet access in their home. Due to such high rates, Macon County IT Director Tim Burrell said they are already looking for solutions, in case schools do not reopen in the fall, or are again shut down for a period of time.
“We will be providing wireless hotspots at each school location with open access available in school parking areas. We are looking into providing additional hotspots around the county, possibly near community centers. We are also looking into providing a mobile jetpack type device for students that have no internet at home but do have cellular coverage,” said Burrell.
The necessity for virtual services during the pandemic highlighted the need for, and the lack of, broad-based internet connection.
“Covid-19 has laid bare so much of the inequality that’s in this country today,” said Franklin Mayor Bob Scott. “Internet, we have learned, we cannot do without. I know of people that had to drive to sit outside the library. A couple of businesses made their service available out in parking lots.”
Both Scott and Nolte said that the only viable solution to the problem was government action.
“I think the only real solution is for the state or local government to say to internet providers, we will reimburse you or pay a percentage of your costs to expand reliable high-speed access in identified areas,” said Nolte.
“I think what we need to do nationally is the same thing that brought about rural electrification. When we had the TVA and the electric coops. Because the private providers of electricity would not run lines down to the last mile. So, we are going to need a massive undertaking to make sure that everyone that needs internet service will get it,” Scott said. “Government is the only way we’re gonna provide internet service to everybody. As long as we provide internet service based on profitability, we’re not gonna have equal internet service to everybody.”
Scott said that he doesn’t believe things will go back to the way they were before the pandemic. He suspects more business and work will be done from home, virtually.
“From what I understand we sent our school children home with a tablet, but we sent them to homes without internet service,” said Scott. “Internet service is no longer a luxury, it is now a necessity.”