How Much Do You Know About Rural Education? Part 2: Navigating the Digital Chasm

Photo courtesy of Allison Shelley for EDUimages

Dr. Jared Bigham offers a four-part series for Ahead of the Heard that amplifies issues facing rural school districts, students, and communities. He will highlight key challenges, explore innovative partnerships, and dispel rural myths along the way. Read more posts in this series here.

For the past decade, the issue of high-speed connectivity has gained exponential importance but still resides at the edges of most organization strategic plans or at the top of the want list vs. the need list. The pandemic has laid bare inequities that persist with broadband access in small and remote towns across the country, sparking a renewed sense of urgency to address the digital divide.

Rural America is just now coming out of an infrastructure overhaul that focused primarily on getting schools high-speed connections to meet the minimum requirements for online state assessments. A great deal of money and planning has gone into connecting geographically remote and/or financially challenged rural schools for end-of-year testing purposes, with the ancillary benefit of increasing the capacity for learning experiences for students the entire school year. However, even with a monumental push to get rural schools connected, 12 million students across the country were unable to complete schoolwork because they lacked home internet access the year before COVID-19.

When the pandemic hit the U.S., access and opportunity gaps were on stark display in rural communities and the digital divide looked more like a digital chasm. When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1954 on Brown v. Board of Education, it stated that, “In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education. Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.” In the case of rural students’ education during the pandemic, “equal terms” equates to access to high-speed connectivity.

There’s an old saying, “Nothing changes if nothing changes.” This embodies the situation many rural districts across the country have found themselves in. Sure, there were many families without high-speed access before the pandemic a Pew study found that 28% of rural homes have no broadband connection at home but it didn’t become an equal terms issue until schools went to full virtual and/or hybrid instruction. If there has been even a millimeter of a silver lining to the pandemic, it’s that it forced an expedited set of additional resources and innovative approaches into this space.

For those unfamiliar with rural geography across our country, you might be asking why hotspots weren’t just parachuted into homes like they were in many urban and suburban school districts. The quick answer: primarily because of an area of mountainous topography that blocks cell signals, or an area of flat topography that is too far removed from the nearest cell tower. Rural communities are located in a diverse array of remote terrains.

People often assume that these communities can simply run fiber (or “glass” as we call it in rural areas), to homes with all the state and federal money that has been coming down the pipe. Again, geography is laughing at us. In urban and suburban areas, fiber lines for the most part can be installed in existing infrastructure. In many rural areas, it takes completely new excavation work, and, as one contractor summed it up, “Yeah, you can get glass to run to the end of that road for a million dollars…as long as you don’t hit rock.” 

Despite the many hurdles, rural districts across the country do what they normally do: take a self-reliant approach for stopgap measures and then innovate for long-term solutions. 

A common stopgap measure last spring was to create community hotspots where families could park and connect for students to download and upload assignments as well as participate in virtual instruction. As far as emergency measures go, it’s not a bad scenario. However, it’s tough enough to learn fractions as a kid, doing it virtually from the back seat of a car without heat or air is a recipe for frustration. On top of the other academic challenges that come with being in a low socioeconomic demographic, here is an additional stressor like none before.   

Eventually, districts started pushing into new areas of innovation, and companies, nonprofits, and other organizations started collaborating to address the issue head-on. One company, Learning Blade, designed a free app for its resources called Learning Blade Backpack that allows students to access robust STEM and Career and Technical Education resources at home by downloading information and assignments when they connect to a hotspot, and then uploading their work at a later date when they next connect. 

A few months ago, Amy Polanowski spoke about the stress her rural, unconnected students felt and how she utilized Backpack to help. Polanowski teaches middle school in Sullivan, Missouri and has been using the Backpack app since last Fall. “Students without internet connection at home stress over being able to complete work on time,” she said. “With the Backpack app, they can download their mission and work anywhere at any time, which helps relieve that stress. Giving intermittent access to connectivity isn’t enough. Students need to be able to also leverage time to learn when they are not connected.” 

Sheila Boyington, CEO of Learning Blade characterized the app as an “equity play. “At the beginning of COVID-19, we knew the digital divide was only going to get bigger. No matter how much stimulus came out, it would take time to have connectivity at all homes,” she said.

Understanding that bringing connectivity to all rural families won’t happen overnight is a common perspective across these communities. Wes Brownfield is executive director of the Arizona Rural Schools Association and superintendent of Chevelon Butte Elementary School District. “I knew the need was not going to be something we could work on incrementally. Strategies would have to be operationalized now,” said Brownfield. To that end, he helped organize The Final Mile Project, a collaborative effort to bring high-speed connectivity to rural families across seven Arizona school districts by leveraging joint resources. “We had a broadband superhighway to our schools but getting internet into homes amounted to tin cans and string in many cases,” according to Brownfield. 

As is common when creating connectivity infrastructure in rural communities, economy of scale becomes an issue. The smallest number The Final Mile Project is working on connects six families in one area, and the largest connects 55 families. These numbers combined would be less than most apartment complexes or a single subdivision in urban and suburban areas, which creates challenges when vying for grant dollars. “Granular successes will eventually aggregate to real change,” according to Brownfield, summing up his team’s pragmatic approach to bridging the digital divide.

These are just some of the ways rural districts are attacking the digital chasm, but there many other examples of rural district innovation, including datacasting, building cell towers on school property, installing micro cell towers, and using the Citizens Broadband Radio Service. No matter the strategy, what shines through across rural communities and school districts is a fierce self-reliance to tackle problems and come up with innovative solutions. “If you’re willing to take the long view and dedicate yourself to internet equity, you can get almost anything done as long as you don’t care who cuts the ribbon,” said Brownfield, summing things up in clear terms.

Dr. Jared Bigham is a fourth-generation rural educator. He serves as senior advisor on Workforce & Rural Initiatives for the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce, is board chair of the Tennessee Rural Education Association, and is active in the National Rural Education Association. He is the proud husband to an assistant principal and father of four children.