COVID-19 has changed the ways in which we live, especially the workforce and—for students of all ages—the ways in which we learn. For many, distance learning has become an indefinite way of life, as parents do not feel safe allowing their students to return to in-person classroom settings. Others are attending school on a split schedule to lessen the chance of crowds. Some have been asked to quarantine, as they have been exposed to or have contracted COVID-19. Whatever the situation, millions of students have found distance learning necessary amid the pandemic.
But, what happens when that student doesn’t have access to a reliable internet connection at home? Or, worse—what if he or she doesn’t have any internet connection at all.
Though distance learning has become a necessity for many Tennessee families, 1 in 4 Tennesseans lacks access to any internet service provider, putting distance learning out of reach. United Communications is on a mission to decrease this number in Middle Tennessee with our newly-announced Project UNITE—an initiative focused on uniting community leaders and leveraging opportunities to bring high-speed internet to those without.
On our journey to connect historically overlooked areas, we are also diving in to learn more about the crucial need for internet connection in a world that continues to become more virtual. We were lucky enough to have a conversation with Don Embry, Superintendent of Bedford County Schools. Here’s what we learned about the critical need for internet access to facilitate distance learning.
The Challenges Created by a Lack of Internet Access
“A large portion of our county does not have internet access; therefore, a lot of students can’t learn online,” said Embry. Without internet access, students are left to find other ways to complete their lessons, a challenge that Bedford County schools are working to overcome in several creative ways.
Embry noted that at the beginning of the pandemic, the hurdle was to ensure that students and teachers were all equipped with laptops at home. The school was able to provide these for the vast majority of students, but for those without internet access (students and teachers alike) the laptop was not enough to ensure that they were able to complete their work. “To meet the needs of kids who don’t have internet access at home, we’re recording lessons, putting them on thumb drives, and having parents or students pick up those drives when they’re done,” he noted. Though this is the best solution, for now, this process puts students at least two days behind on their work, as it takes time for students to receive the USB drives.
This new style of learning has not only been difficult for the administrators and students, but also for teachers. “Teachers have never experienced anything like this before in their careers. They were never trained to teach virtually. It’s a completely different ballgame. Many of our teachers have a blended classroom. Trying to juggle between students who are in person and the students who are watching online, is difficult. Teachers have done a tremendous job of learning how to do this on the fly. I’m very proud of our teachers,” he explained.
The Constant Need for Improved Processes
Embry added that loading USB drives was the first piece of what will become a larger initiative to bring students the information they need. “We certainly think that we’ll see improvements on the horizon. We’re constantly evaluating ourselves to try to better serve our kids and teachers and trying to get them access to devices. This is something that we’re going to be dealing with for quite some time,” Embry added.
The school board is working on other creative solutions, such as adding wireless access points to school busses that will be deployed to these rural areas without broadband. He also mentioned that they had added these wireless access points to the school buildings so that parents who were able could come download students’ lessons.
The Increase in COVID-19 Cases
“We’re seeing more children being quarantined, more children opting out of in-person and going virtual,” Embry explained. It is unclear when cases will stop rising in Tennessee and when schools will return to in-person classes full-time. This makes the need for internet connection in every home vital, because we can’t afford for these students to fall behind, which could affect the rest of their education, or even the rest of their lives.
The Concern for Not Only Students’ Lessons, But their Overall Wellbeing
As it is unknown when the need for distance learning will end, the school board has committed to finding new and improved technology solutions to ensure that students can receive a quality education at home. Of course, even if a perfect solution existed, it wouldn’t come without worry for the school administration, its teachers, and parents. “My concern is the students who are not able to participate or are struggling because they don’t have in-person contact with the teacher. I’m concerned about students who don’t or can’t have access at home,” Embry shared.
He went on to say, “We’re concerned about the whole child and their development. People are social, and children need to be around their friends, peers, and teachers. But, it’s just not possible right now.” The difficulty is not only learning to adapt but also not having the ability to plan for the end of the pandemic.
Project UNITE is Working to Support Middle Tennessee Schools
“With United expanding in Bedford County, that’s been a huge boost, making Wi-Fi available to rural areas that don’t have it right now. We fully expect to see a rise in the number of families who have broadband access at home and will therefore be able to participate in school,” Embry explained. Project UNITE will bring internet access to more than 1,700 under-connected homes by the end of 2020, and our mission does not stop there. We will continue to find new opportunities to expand our reach in rural areas of Middle Tennessee so that families have the access they need and deserve.
Thank you to our guest contributor, Don Embry, Superintendent of Bedford County Schools.