The Connectivity Challenges Schools Face With Implementing Distance Learning During COVID-19

COVID-19 has forced school districts, teachers, students and families to quickly adjust to distance learning. Although many school districts have blended or online learning programs, these learning options disappear when schools close for more than 9 million students who do not have Internet connectivity at home. It’s vital that school districts address these connectivity challenges so that students can continue learning alongside their peers.

While obstacles vary by location, school districts from urban cities to rural counties face similar connectivity challenges:

Lack of
Devices

Limited Service
Provider Options

Insufficient
Data

1 | LACK OF DEVICES

In many households, students either don’t have access to devices to engage in distance learning or there are not enough devices for each student in the household. Students may be sharing with siblings or caregivers, for example. Here’s what districts need to know about rolling out device loaner programs.

2 | LIMITED SERVICE PROVIDER OPTIONS

One reason for the estimated 9 million students lacking connectivity is the high monthly cost of Internet access. The good news is there are many free and low-cost resources available for qualified families, and many providers are creating flexible payment options during COVID-19. Find free and affordable Internet options here.

In some rural areas, wireline service is completely unavailable. A mobile hotspot option might be a solution for students in areas with strong cell service. More on mobile Internet offers here and hotspot options here.

Bandwidth may be slow or unreliable in instances where students are borrowing an Internet connection from a neighbor or sharing bandwidth with family members who are also working remotely. For districts with higher population density, mobile Wi-Fi buses offer a lot of flexibility for delivering access. This is also an option for students who live in remote areas that lack cell or wireline service but who are able to drive to parts of their district with accessible service (such as a Wi-Fi bus parked near a community center or school) and safely access school work there.

There simply aren’t enough hotspots to meet the demand. According to our research, in early April, five of the six major mobile carriers were showing hotspots as unavailable or back-ordered on their websites. Hotspots are also significantly more costly than wireline solutions, requiring resources that many school districts don’t have.  

3 | INSUFFICIENT DATA 

Most school administrators have started collecting information, but don’t have enough data to accurately understand connectivity gaps at home. To begin designing solutions that work for their students, they need to understand which students lack Internet access or are in need of devices.

If a school district’s solution to lack of Internet access is deploying a roving Wi-Fi bus, it is difficult to know if the bus is serving the students most in need without accurate student addresses. Alabama’s Montgomery Public School’s potential solution to this is parking Wi-Fi buses at specific sites around the community, like the local YMCA, during school hours. 

In New York City, the New York Times reported there are an estimated 114,000 students who live in homeless shelters or unstable housing. While some students may have been given devices, most of the city's 450 shelters for families do not have Wi-Fi available for residents, according to the city’s Department of Social Services.

Even when students have a device and access to a reliable Internet connection, tracking student attendance and assignment completion present new challenges. Your school district will need to follow up by phone, text, or email to get the data you need. Here’s our guide on how to collect the right information to better serve your students.