Digital Divide: How Georgia students, remote learning and resources fare in the pandemic

Digital Divide: How Georgia students, remote learning and resources fare in the pandemic

ATLANTA — When Schley County schools closed for the pandemic last month, Misty Parks couldn’t keep her middle-school-age daughter in class with a computer. Her child turned to a cellphone for two months because the school didn’t have a device to send home, and the mother of five didn’t have the resources.

“I was told just to do the best I could with what I’ve got for now,” Parks said.

Today, Schley County — home to roughly 1200 students in South Georgia — has at least eight Wi-Fi devices scattered between churches and businesses, like a nail salon on the main street in downtown. Several more are on the way, as students can opt between face-to-face and remote learning this year. Last year, the district provided devices to about 750 students, and it was reported that grades 3-8 were already assigned laptops.

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Some students, like Parks' daughter, said they still couldn’t pick up quickly diminishing supplies. Now that face-to-face is an option, Parks is sending her daughter back-to-school despite COVID concerns.

“We’re not that really wealthy with devices,” added Jakeshia Napper, an Ellaville mother of a preschool son. “Some make it, and others don’t.”

A review of available records from Georgia’s 173 school districts showed a digital divide that’s hit both rural and metro areas. Thousands of students were “lost” in the initial stages of remote learning, meaning districts showed they’d never logged into digital classrooms.

Some scenarios have improved with the summer months and funding to prepare for this school year. Others have not, and some just don’t keep records tracking the remote learning statistics.

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Here’s a sample of what we found that provides various scenarios for how districts and students, mostly outside of Metro Atlanta, have been dealing with remote learning and its challenges.

Just over 3,000 students, or roughly 20% of Rockdale County students, never logged into their classrooms last spring when schools shut down for the pandemic. District records show the majority of those students were in grades K-2, which was not a part of a program that provides computers to each student. The remaining students are in what called is a 1:1, where through the help of a nonprofit, each student is provided a device. This year, iPads have gone out to the younger students to start the year.

Oconee County found success in all 8,100 of their students logging in last year, as each student was provided a device. But the district reports Wi-Fi support was not available through the school system.

In Calhoun City Schools, 336 tapped into district-provided Wi-Fi, and every student had access to a device, records show. But 337 students were “lost” last spring, and almost a tenth of the enrollment never logged into a classroom.

A Taylor County district survey conducted over the summer indicated nearly 28% of roughly 1300 students did not have reliable internet access going into this school year. The district began the year with both in-person and online options for students.

Appling County had no records to track whether students made it last year or not. No devices were available for Gilmer County elementary students last spring.

Despite providing devices and hot spots to most students, 41% of Taliaferro County students were lost last spring. They’d never logged in, and an administrator lamented broadband access in rural Georgia.

“Listening to the ads that these cell networks cover 98% of America, we must be in the 2% then,” the administrator wrote in response to our open records request.

While there is no concrete data tracking the reasons behind students not logging in when the resources are available, experts, families and advocates have noted how personal and home situations can play a role in curtailing student remote learning success.

This year, the Georgia Department of Education entered into a contract with Verizon Wireless to service 12.5 million public school students in ten states, the company said.

Each district can order what Verizon described as highly discounted internet access, devices and security through June 2021 or until the pandemic ends.

“Georgia has the same need we’re seeing in all 50 states at this point,” said Andres Irlando, senior vice president and president of public sector for Verizon Connect. “No student, anywhere in the country, should have to forgo their education because they don’t have access to the internet and to collaboration tools to be able to continue their education online.”

The state also announced a $6 million allotment of CARES ACT money to support virtual learning this year, with the funds going toward connectivity initiatives, including school bus Wi-Fi transmitters.

In Schley County, Parks adds that even with a device and Wi-Fi service, she’s in a bind.

“If I could stay at home and not work, I would keep her home,” Parks said. “Safety is always best, but she’s gotta have a roof over her head. I’m very ready for this to be over.”

Families are preparing homes for digital learning