Wireless hotspots narrow digital divide, tech gaps remain in Carter County schools

Michael D. Smith
The Daily Ardmoreite

When the COVID-19 pandemic abruptly closed school buildings in March, the lack of home internet access became a glaring problem for thousands of students who tried to finish the school year without a classroom. After a summer of local, state and federal efforts to expand access, more than 850 devices will be deployed across Carter County with students beginning a new school year.

Schools will not incur extra costs for the hardware and service is being offered at a discounted rate. Even though the devices will provide internet access without families directly footing the bill, some districts and families may still face technological challenges whether or not the pandemic closes school doors again.

The Oklahoma State Department of Education last week announced 50,000 wireless hotspots would be distributed among 175 school districts across the state to begin the upcoming school year. The devices were purchased after the state received almost $161 million in federal relief funding through the CARES Act.

Some districts across the state received 10 or fewer devices, while others received thousands. In order to receive the equipment, districts were required to have a distance learning plan and conduct a survey of students’ households to see what connectivity assistance would be needed.

“As a condition of receiving a grant, hotspots funded through the grant may only be assigned to low-income students,” read an OSDE document that explains the grant process.

Five districts in Carter County received a total of 851 devices, according to OSDE which bought the equipment at a discounted rate. School districts using the wireless hotspots will not incur any equipment costs but still have to pay a monthly service fee per device for at least six months. 

Each wireless device will cost $10 per month, according to multiple sources. Content filtering is also being provided at no cost to school districts by OneNet, a state education initiative that provides internet services to Oklahoma libraries and colleges. The service agreement between districts and Verizon can be extended until June 2021 or as long as the Pandemic National Emergency is in effect, according to the state education department.

SURVEY RESPONSES

Among the smallest local districts in Carter County to receive the hotspots is Springer Public Schools. Superintendent Cynthia Hunter said she is grateful for the opportunity for her district to provide connectivity assistance to families who responded to the school’s technology survey.

“We had 28% of our respondents who stated that they needed help accessing the internet.  Of that 28%, 25 identified as low income,” Hunter said.

Those technology surveys conducted following school closures highlighted the connectivity issues faced by a large number of Oklahoma households. Wilson Public Schools Superintendent Tonya Finnerty said more than a third of her students’ households face challenges with home internet access.

“Referring back to our student/parent technology survey, 35% of our students did not have a sufficient connection to an internet service to be able to access our distance learning system. That equals around 130 students in our small rural school district,” Finnerty said. 

Hotspots will be distributed to families and not necessarily students, considering some households will have multiple students. A vast majority of hotspots in Carter County will be distributed to low-income families in Ardmore and Fox. 

While Carter County’s largest school district will receive 500 of the hotspots, Fox Public Schools — which had about 300 students last year -- will receive 211 of them. Only 140 will be distributed to families in Lone Grove, Springer and Wilson.

The wireless hotspots will provide internet access through the Verizon wireless network. Questions about device connectivity and the company’s network capacity in Carter County were not answered by press time.

BOOK IN A DARK ROOM

Providing internet access to low-income families will not solve all of the technology problems faced by low-income families with students. Decisions by schools to subsidize connectivity post-pandemic have not been made, and the computers or tablets that connect to the internet are still out of reach for some.

“This is a band aid fix. The grant did not provide for devices the hotspots will be used on,” said Fox Public Schools Superintendent Brent Phelps. He said his district has found a way to loan equipment this year but is not sure how long the hotspot equipment will be used. 

“This pandemic has underscored the inequities of the digital divide that hinder opportunities for so many of our children,” said OSDE Superintendent Joy Hofmeister in a July 31 statement. She said her department encouraged districts to use CARES Act funding to secure computers and tablets. 

“But a device without connectivity is like a book in a pitch-dark room,” said Hofmeister.

School officials in Wilson jumped on the ability to use pandemic funding to upgrade computer access for students. Finnerty said old desktop computers have been upgraded and now nearly every student from second grade to high school seniors have access to a Chromebook or iPad.

“During our time of building closure, we realized, more than ever, that we needed a way for our students to be able to connect virtually to the services we offer. We understood that this transformation would not be an overnight process, but a continual one,” Finnerty said.

CARES Act funding is also helping some schools pay the monthly service fee for hotspots. Ardmore City Schools will be using CARES Act funding to pay the $5,000 monthly cost through at least December, according to school officials.

CLOSING A DIGITAL DIVIDE

Ardmore City Schools Superintendent Kim Holland said his district has been exploring ways to close digital divides with connectivity and equipment. He expects many families to utilize distance learning as much as possible and wants Ardmore students to share their learning experience, whether in-class or over the internet.

“For kids who don’t have any technology, we’re prepared to provide them with their Chromebook so they can work from home,” said Holland. 

“We’ll be using those much more individually and actively in our schools so that if we have to quickly transition back to a full virtual setting … everybody would already have a computer assigned to them and be ready to go,” he said.

Ardmore is also looking at ways to expand internet access on campus and across the city. One method is to extend WiFi signals from campus buildings so families can connect to faster speeds from parking lots. Holland said his district is also exploring ways for low-income families to subscribe to local broadband internet access for reduced costs. 

“We’re thankful that we have a technology department that can speak that language a lot better than I can,” Holland said.

Equitable access to technology and connectivity has been a hurdle for school districts for nearly an entire generation, and a pandemic has made that gap appear even wider. Holland said challenges faced by educators are numerous and widespread.

"Any superintendent that says they have their whole act together probably is not telling you the truth. We've all got some things that we haven't thought about yet. We get a little bit better everyday," he said.