Since March and the early weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic, Georgians have adapted to working online, socializing online and more recently, attending school online.
But for many rural areas in the state, internet speeds don’t meet the requirements of the “new normal,” especially when it comes to online education. For teachers and students grappling with the challenges presented by virtual learning — which is heavily reliant on streaming video — high speed internet has grown from a luxury to a necessity.
And it’s a necessity that hundreds of thousands of Georgians can’t access.
A recent Georgia Department of Community Affairs study found that of the more than 507,000 homes and businesses lacking access to reliable broadband service, which the GDCA defines as speeds of 25 megabits per second, nearly 70% of these locations are in rural parts of Georgia.
One of those underserved areas, Jefferson County located south of Augusta and with a population of just over 15,000, started the school year with fully online classes. But some students have been coming to school anyway.
Jefferson County Middle School Principal Ken Hildebrant said a few students are still showing up to do their online work at JCMS, where the internet speeds are stable.
Other students have resorted to using the public WiFi available in churches, parks and even restaurants.
Hildebrant said his staff is doing all it can to help students, but when it comes to internet access, they can only do so much. Teachers are making contact with parents much more often through home visits and phone calls. They are even filling a tech support role at times.
“To be honest, it has made us better educators,” Hildebrant said.
Some of the staff will go out into the community to drive students with no transportation options to the school to do their work.
The teachers at JCMS have hit hurdles, too.
Teaching from home wasn’t an option for many, so the full staff has been going to campus Monday through Thursday. From there, they teach online classes from brick-and-mortar classrooms where the internet speed is capable of supporting the streaming video required for online teaching.
Brandy Daniels is in her first year of teaching at JCMS and has two kids in the Glascock County School System. Kaitlyn, 15, was captain of the cheerleading team last year, and Blake, 13, who plays left field — and sometimes second base — for the Glascock baseball team.
Both will be learning online until December. So far this year, they’ve traveled to JCMS with their mom to do their schoolwork.
“For the kids in our community, which is extremely rural, it’s very difficult to do online school,” Daniels said. “If you live out of the city limits, then you don’t have internet access.”
Daniels just bought 10 acres of land in Mitchell, a small city in Glascock County. Census data from 2018 had Mitchell’s population at 193. Cell service isn’t great in Mitchell, and internet access is worse.
For a while, she was using her phone as a WiFi hotspot, but that can only go so far, even with unlimited data plans.
“When you reach your cap for data, it will start to throttle you down, which made it hard to stream the videos and all the things that were embedded in the program,” Daniels said.
Now, while Daniels teaches her classes, her kids sit in the room and do their own school work.
As the return to in-person school approaches, JCMS is giving students a choice of online or in-person learning. On Sept. 21, the students will start returning to school, starting with 6th grade, then 7th and 8th grade begin on Sept. 28. About 50 percent have chosen to return in-person classes, while the other half will remain online.
Hildebrant said that leaves a tough choice for those with poor internet access: risk their child’s ability to access online course materials because of bad internet, or risk their child contracting COVID.
“So we’re in a dilemma there, and you can’t hardly blame the parents, because they’re scared to send their kids back. It’s really nobody’s fault,” Hildebrant said. “But maybe one positive thing to come out of this pandemic is that we realize this is a problem in rural areas, and maybe we can do something about it.”
The Savannah-Chatham County Public School System’s all-online start to the year has made access to the internet paramount to student success.
But the cost of high speed internet plans are steep, and in some cases, that provides a barrier for entry.
Before the school year started, SCCPSS pointed toward a number of non-profit organizations and companies with plans for free or less expensive internet including everyoneon.org, AT&T’s Access program, PCsforpeople.org, Spectrum’s Internet Assist program, Comcast’s Internet Essentials service, and Hargray’s free internet plan. These services offer less expensive internet plans for K-12 students, all of which are under $12 per month, and some offer up to 60 days of free internet access.
But as of Sept. 1, they rolled out another plan, WiFi on Wheels, a program where 10 buses outfitted with 4G hotspots are positioned in various neighborhoods. According to the district, these “smart buses” support a total of 60 student connections.
Each of the 10 buses travel to a rotation of locations throughout the county; one from 8 a.m. to 11 a.m., then another from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.
Connectivity to the bus can be from 300 to 400 feet line of sight. It uses 4G LTE speeds for cell tower connection and provides Wi-Fi connectivity to students’ personal or school-issued devices. It is CIPA (Children’s Internet Protection Act)-compliant and provides education-only content filtering.
Still, some parents remain frustrated by the virtual environment. SCCPSS is eyeing a possible mid-October return to classrooms if COVID cases continue to decline in Chatham County.
Further north in urban Clarke County and its neighbor, rural Oglethorpe County, the same issues arise. Oglethorpe’s underlying problem is geography, while Clarke’s is poverty.
Only about half the Oglethrope County’s homes are able to access broadband internet. The county’s government has long-range plans to improve that number, but those won’t help this year.
This year, the school system has partnered with local volunteer fire departments, churches and businesses to create places where students can access Wi-Fi.
The Oglethorpe County government has partnered with a private company to improve broadband access, spending $350,000 of county money to build what they hope is a first step — a tower system that will bring wireless broadband to part of the county, Oglethorpe County Planning and Development Director Amy Stone said.
The tower will only serve the county’s most densely populated area. The more sparsely populated areas still won’t have access. Paladin, the private company that will operate the system, guarantees they’ll be able to deliver a high-speed signal 95 percent of the time to at least 1,000 accounts. The signal is expected to reach about 1,200 households in Oglethorpe County and a smaller number in nearby rural areas of Clarke and Madison counties.
The county partnered with the school system also; the schools have a fast fiber optic connection to the Educational Broadband Spectrum, so those signals are broadcast from a tower at the school to Paladin’s tower several miles away.
“It’s a great first step. It’s a good partnership,” Oglethorpe County School Superintendent Beverly Levine said. “We’ve got some areas where even a hotspot doesn’t help us because they don’t have cell reception.”
In Clarke County, the access issue is different — more a question of poverty than geography.
At 119 square miles and nearly 130,000 people, Clarke is the most densely populated county in the state outside the five metro Atlanta counties. There are still pockets where cell reception is weak, but most people have access to reliable cell service and high-speed internet — if they can afford it.
Athens also has one of the state’s highest poverty rates, and $60 or so a month for internet access is too steep for some families.
The Clarke County School District’s solution has been to distribute hotspots to students and families school principals have identified as needing broadband access. The school district has already distributed about 500 of them, with 1,200 on back-order, said Clarke County School District Chief of Operations Dexter Fisher.
T-Mobile provides the hotspots and the signal, but charges $20 a month to access the company’s cellular network, Fisher said.
The school system plans to deploy up to eight school buses equipped with hotspots once the school year begins and school officials have a better idea of where the gaps are.
Students can also get Wi-Fi access outside school buildings and outside the public library, but many don’t believe asking people to drive to parking lots to get Wi-Fi is a good solution.
“Equity is the key word we always talk about,” said Athens-Clarke Commissioner Tim Denson.
“Sitting beside a bus is not equity when compared to someone at home in their bedroom,” Denson said. “It’s going to give an amazing amount of privilege (to those who have broadband at home).”
“What we need to be talking about is getting internet access into people’s homes,” Denson said. “That’s not good enough. It’s just not.”