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Connecting Rural School Districts to the Internet

The move to remote learning during the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic highlighted the fact that the Internet is a privilege, not a right. While urban school districts were able to continue teaching remotely with minimal interruption, rural school districts struggled to keep teachers and students connected. With internet access becoming more and more integral to education, connecting rural school districts to the internet is vital to keeping rural students in step with their urban peers.

Mobile Hotspots

Hotspots are a popular option for people living in rural areas to connect to the internet, and schools can take advantage of this technology as well. Rural school districts with spotty, unreliable internet — or no wired internet access at all — can invest in mobile hotspots for schools that students can take home. These hotspots allow students to access their lessons online, do homework, and submit assignments. The Covid-19 pandemic has shown how important it is for schools to be flexible in how they deliver lessons. Having hotspots on hand can allow schools to be flexible in case of any sudden changes to teaching and learning situations. By having several hotspots available, school districts in rural areas can be confident that they’re prepared to adjust to both student needs and distance learning.

Public Internet Access

Mobile hotspots for schools rely on cellular data, and while having these available on loan is a great option, for some students it won’t solve their connection issues. If students don’t live where cellular data is available, then a mobile hotspot serves no purpose. Providing families with a map of locations that provide information on locations that offer free internet, such as libraries, coffee shops, and restaurants, is one route school districts can take. Another possibility is for schools to provide free internet themselves by giving students easy access to a school WiFi hotspot. The school is a familiar location for students. If students know they have a spot to access the internet 24/7, then getting online to do homework isn’t a question of “how,” but “when.” Students might stay later at school for a few nights a week, or they might make a weekend trip to school to finish up a few assignments before class. A school WiFi hotspot is a great addition to the community at large, too. Providing a public use Wi-Fi hotspot can help an entire community without a wired internet connection get online and access the many services the internet provides.

As helpful as hotspots can be for keeping rural school districts connected to the internet, it’s important to realize that hotspots are not a long-term solution to internet connectivity issues. Leaving home to park in a parking lot or set up in a restaurant booth to do homework isn’t ideal. And even for students who are able to use a hotspot from the comfort of their own home, online services are beginning to rely on higher and higher bandwidth capabilities that hotspots aren’t able to provide. For now these hotspots are a temporary solution to keep rural students from falling behind their urban classmates, but it will take internet infrastructure changes to truly address the problems that rural educators face.

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