Internet Struggles Hamper Online Learning For Some Students

Internet Struggles Hamper Online Learning For Some Students
Worcester County Public Schools Chief Operating/Academic Officer Annette Wallace is pictured participating in an online session with a teacher this week. Submitted Photo

SNOW HILL – Two weeks into the virtual launch of the school year, parents are already sharing internet frustrations with elected officials.

While the school system has provided mobile hotspots to those who need them, internet speed and rural connectivity issues continue to plague local students.

“If you’re in one of the municipalities you have everything available but in the rural areas it’s lacking,” Worcester County Commissioner Ted Elder said. “A lot of the broadband’s not available … Some of our brightest students are out there in rural areas and we need to continue getting them access.”

Elder brought up the issue at this week’s meeting of the commissioners and his concerns were echoed by parent Christina Hulslander during the Worcester County Board of Education meeting later in the day. She thanked school system officials for providing students with hotspots but said that didn’t solve the connectivity problem.

“Unfortunately our telecom companies don’t provide solid coverage throughout our entire county,” she said. “It’s my understanding we need hotspots from a variety of different providers. I am paying for the best data plan I can but because of the way the plans are structured they inherently have data speed limits.”

Hulslander said she was reaching out to local as well as state officials to share her frustration. As the parent of two Snow Hill High School students, she said her data plan would allow for six days of online schooling.

“After that our data speeds will throttle down and we may or may not be able to open an email,” she said.

Hulslander said that when Verizon had provided customers with extra high-speed data in the spring it had proven helpful and that she hoped the company would do something similar now. She said she was discouraged by the lack of state support on the issue and would continue advocating for better rural internet access.

“I know I’m speaking to the choir,” she told the school board. “I’m going to keep shouting it out at all levels.”

Superintendent Lou Taylor agreed that the school system had the same concerns and had shared them with elected officials.

“Together maybe we’ll make some strides,” he said. “What you shared today is spot on.”

In an interview later this week, Annette Wallace, the school system’s chief operating and academic officer for grades 9-12, confirmed that internet access in rural Worcester was an ongoing problem. She said that while the school system provided a mobile hotspot to anyone who needed one, there were many places in the county where they simply wouldn’t work. And in places where they do work, after students use a certain amount of data, providers reduce internet speeds. Wallace says that’s a major issue when the school system is asking students to use Zoom and take part in synchronous learning, as that’s often impossible once their high-speed data is gone.

“It’s an unfortunate part of all this,” she said.

She said it was far beyond a school system issue.

“The people who can make things happen are the state and federal delegation,” she said.

Wallace added that the school system was doing what it could, however, in providing paper packets of educational materials, mobile hotspots and ensuring that WiFi was accessible in school parking lots. In addition, many of those with severe internet issues are expected to return to school Sept. 28. At that point, roughly 10% of each school’s students will be able to return to the building.

“We’re not living a hard and fast line of 10%,” she said.

Parents with internet or other issues are asked to contact their child’s school with any concerns.

About The Author: Charlene Sharpe

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Charlene Sharpe has been with The Dispatch since 2014. A graduate of Stephen Decatur High School and the University of Richmond, she spent seven years with the Delmarva Media Group before joining the team at The Dispatch.