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LOCAL NEWS: Rural internet during the pandemic: never good, but now a serious problem

LOCAL NEWS: Rural internet during the pandemic: never good, but now a serious problem

Ever since schools and businesses closed in Oregon in March, kids and parents have embarked on a new journey – living, working and learning at home, all together, all of a sudden. Joanne Rideout takes a look at their experience, and the challenges facing the educators trying to serve them.

Script follows, Scroll down to Listen [6:26]

The shift in how we work and learn, has meant big changes for people everywhere. With Oregon still under stay at home orders, a big factor in how well that’s going, comes down to the Internet, and how good your connection is. Rural residents have it harder.

Knappa and Brownsmead are communities about 15 miles outside Astoria, east toward Portland. Driving by on US Highway 30, travelers see mostly trees, with a scattering of houses nestled in hilly terrain. Residents’ kids go to the Knappa School District. Many of the district’s teachers live locally too. Statewide, about 40 percent of Oregon’s school districts are considered rural. That’s according to the Chalkboard Project, a nonpartisan group dedicated to education reform.

Paulette Johnson is Knappa’s school superintendent. Her district serves kids K-12 on a small campus just off Highway 30. The pandemic has helped the district realize how inadequate internet access is for their students now that they’re trying to serve them remotely.

Johnson: “We found out that about one third of our kids actually didn’t have access to any type of internet unless it was data on Mom’s phone. And they didn’t have devices at home. So the interconnection we have in the rural areas about Knappa Brownsmeand and Svenson are really really poor.”

The district can issue kids computers if they need them, but it can’t give everyone internet access. However, it can share what it has – a good connection.

Paulette Johnson: “At the school, because we’re with a co-op with the Northwest Regional ESD, we have a good connection and so as time went on and we’re thinking about, well how do we do this learning for all, it was, well, we’re going to have to provide a spot. And what we did was we had our tech guy out with his computer walking the parking lot, figuring out where kids could park, where parents could park in order to access that. And we have about 36 parking areas set up so parents can come when they can up to the school and access the internet.”

The school runs its education programs now using a combination of paper and online learning. They use Google classroom and related apps to keep kids connected.

Paulette Johnson: “So for internet access they would get on to like a Google hangout with their teacher or their teacher might use google classroom where they can assign an assignment and the teacher checks in with them twice a week.”

To supplement that, school buses bring kids paper lesson packets dropped off at their usual bus stops, along with daily school lunches. For kids who don’t have internet, the packets are their connection to school.

Paulette Johnson: So, the kids, when they get a meal. they get a learning packet. You know it’s activities, like there’s a sheet in there for the PE teacher. These are the things you need to do this week. Could be something from the counselor about how you stay emotionally well and healthy. There might be a math lesson.”

But there’s more to the story than just that some kids don’t have internet at home. Even when they do, service just isn’t adequate to meet the demand. Misty Lindstrom is lives in Knappa, she’s a mom with three school age kids, one in 6th grade, one in 8th and one in 10th. She’s also a teacher at Tongue Point Job Corps Center in Astoria. And she’s attending college online, seeking a masters degree. All that work is now happening at home. Her experience matched what I heard from other people in the area. She gets her internet through the local telephone company, Centurylink.

Misty Linstrom: “It’ll work for a few minutes and then it’s off for a few minutes. And then it’ll work for a little bit and then it won’t work for a little bit. Almost every day of the week, my kids or myself have some sort of meeting that we have to do. It’ll drop off in the middle of it.”

She said this makes it hard for her kids to complete assignments on Google Classroom. She sticks with her service provider, despite its problems, because there are no data limits. She hasn’t heard of anybody in her area who has decent internet. Other area residents I spoke to who use satellite internet service complained about data limits that ran out part way through the month even before the pandemic. Now, they run out even sooner, and service slows to a crawl.

Linstrom says she can’t see herself piling the kids in her van and going to the school parking lot. But some parents might make it work.

Misty Linstrom: “My friend Louie, who lives in Brownsmead, he said he was going to take his, like, camping trailer, and then his two kids could work, you know, so they could spread out in their trailer and use the school’s WiFi.”

Some families, if they have a good cell phone signal, can use their phone as a hotspot to run computers and tablets, but they may run into data issues, or in most areas, have such poor cell service that hotspots aren’t an option.

Superintendent Johnson says in the short term, she wants kids to be safe, have the resources they need, and some adult connection through the school or their families. Long term, she’s worried about the gaps rural schools will need to fill.

Paulette Johnson: It’s an equity issue with the learning. It’s an equity issue with technology. It’s an equity issue are the kids being successful. It’s an equity issue that we cant contact a kids because they’re homeless or their parents are afraid, or whatever. So we know we’re going to have to fill those gaps. But we want to hold the children harmless.”

I asked Johnson, if she could talk with internet providers, what would she ask for? How could they help schools?

Paulette Johnson: I would ask them for better service, better connectivity, provide it to us free for awhile, let us make sure that our kids are being successful. You know it’s hard to get packets back. Give us some thumb drives so kids can go back and forth with assignments. Anything you can do to help us out here.”

In other, upcoming stories in this series, we’ll hear from internet service providers who offer service in these rural neighborhoods, about what they’re doing, and not doing, to try and meet greater demand for their services.

We’ll hear from legislators about their challenges getting help to rural areas. And there’s a new internet provider locally, one that’s reaching out to these communities claiming to offer better service. We’ll see what they have to offer. Stay tuned for more in our series on rural internet during the pandemic.

I’m Joanne Rideout in Astoria.