Last week, Gov. Kay Ivey bowed to the inevitable and called an end to on-site school instruction for the remainder of the academic year.
Now teachers and administrators are racing to finish the year remotely when school resumes — such as is possible — on April 6. For some students, this will mean going online. For others, who either lack internet access or have slow access, it will be more old-fashioned.
“We certainly do have different levels of capacity all across the state” State Superintendent Eric Mackey said Thursday. “We have school districts that have essentially one-to-one computer capacity and they have pretty good broadband access because of their geographic location in the state. We have other places where we have almost no broadband connectivity.”
Parts of Lauderdale and Colbert counties fall into the latter category. With online instruction scheduled to begin April 6, they’ve got a week to figure out how be deal with the problem.
Lauderdale County Schools Superintendent Jon Hatton said the lack of internet service in rural areas of the county will be a challenge for many of his students.
“We will have to depend on the paper and pencil somewhat,” said Hatton. “I don’t see any other way some of the rural areas can be reached.”
Colbert County, Tuscumbia and Sheffield schools face similar problems.
Tuscumbia sent out a survey on Friday to try to determine how many families are without internet service or wireless internet. Principals will be sending out messages through the school system’s alert system to keep parents updated on instructional plans.
Sheffield school officials are scrambling to figure out the same thing. Superintendent Keith Davis said his system does not have WiFi hot spots for its students. Parents will received information about their children’s assignments the week of April 6.
Colbert County Superintendent Gale Satchel estimates up to 70% of her students could be without adequate internet service, and most do not have WiFi hot spots available.
Her teachers mailed out information about course work last week.
The issue of internet access is even trickier because students without access at home often rely on their local public library to get online. Those libraries, however, are themselves closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
All of this highlights what until now has largely been an economic development concern: improving the state’s broadband infrastructure and increasing internet access in rural areas.
Unfortunately, this is not a problem that is going to solve itself in the middle of a crisis, and few people were thinking about this eventuality even when they were promoting increased broadband connectivity.
This is an issue that needs the involvement of the state Legislature, if only to help grease the regulatory skids.
State Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, has been sponsoring a bill that would set a statewide standard for deploying 5G cellular infrastructure, including how much money cities can charge providers for access to existing utility structures.
Predictably, however, that bill has run into opposition from cities that see charging providers for utility access as a potential cash cow.
Whether Orr’s bill will pass this year is in serious doubt regardless. The Legislature is in recess with no date certain for returning to work. Time is running out on the regular session, and lawmakers have yet to do the one thing they’re obligated to do: pass the state’s education and General Fund budgets.
Many economic development officials in the Shoals have listed improved internet access as one the top future priorities. The pandemic has helped us realize just how important this issue is.