Gap In Broadband Internet Access Creates Online Learning Challenges
Though most school districts throughout Wyoming have reopened their doors to students in-person, the option to attend class online is widely available - and may even become necessary should the state see significant spikes in cases of COVID-19 due to attending schools.
A recent study by the Regional Educational Laboratory at Marzano indicates that this switch may be more difficult for some students than others.
Douglas Gagnon, a researcher for the study, said that there is a sizable gap between different areas of Wyoming concerning the percentage of students that have access to high-speed, broadband internet. In this study, "high speed" is considered an internet connection that runs at 25 mbps or higher. According to the same study, over 68 percent of nonrural districts in Wyoming have high levels of broadband internet connectivity. In comparison, only 30 percent of the rural districts in Wyoming have the same high levels of connectivity. Of the rural districts identified, 40 percent of them have either low or very low levels of broadband internet connectivity.
Under the circumstances in which students have to return to online schooling, Gagnon said the inconsistencies in reliable internet could disproportionately affect students living in rural school districts.
"In more rural places, there's startlingly high numbers of kids that aren't connected," he said. "These are places where remote learning via the internet is not an option."
The study uses two specific Wyoming school districts to serve as an example for the connectivity gap: Park County School District #16 and Laramie County School District #1. A reported 0 percent of 181 inhabitants aged 5-19 (of schooling age) that live within Park District #16 borders have access to broadband internet. In Laramie District #1, however, the data shows 96.4 percent of the 17,900 individuals in the same age range having broadband Internet.
Shane Ogden, the Superintendent of Park County School District #16, is aware of these issues.
"It's going to be a challenge," said Ogden, referring to a situation in which remote schooling would return. "We have many locations that have very poor connectivity and no cell phone service, and so it becomes very difficult to reach all of our kids."
He said that although the county had to scramble in the spring when classes went online with no warning, preparations are in place should students have to learn from home once again. Through the creativity and efforts of the Park District #16 I.T. department, the school is looking to expand the range of its WiFi as well as create alternative schooling methods that maintain partial in-person learning services.
"We are knocking on wood, crossing our fingers, and praying that we don't have to return to what we did last spring," said Ogden. "I don't think it's ideal, and I don't think it's what's best for our kids."