Distance Learning Could Deepen Inequality Between Wyoming Schools

Apr 10, 2020

This story is part of a two-part series on how schools across the state are handling the switch to adapted learning.

This week, all 48 Wyoming school districts launched their adapted learning plans. For some, that means leaning more heavily on online tools that had already been incorporated into the curriculum. But other districts, including many on the Wind River Reservation, are starting from scratch.

A survey conducted by Fremont County District #38, consisting of Arapahoe Elementary and Middle Schools, found that about a third of district homes lacked internet access. Superintendent Roy Brown said the district has ordered 68 wifi hotspots to give out to students in need.

"But as you can imagine, lots of schools are in the same situation. So right now, we don't know whether that order will actually get fulfilled by the time they get to our name on the list," Brown said.

For now, the district is providing students with hard copies of lessons and worksheets.

That system is working well for Elk Sage, who has a kindergartener and an eighth grader in the Arapahoe district. His two older sons, a tenth grader at St. Stephen's Indian School and a second-year at Central Wyoming College, are adjusting to online classes. But if all four students were expected to move online, he said that would max out the family's internet plan.

"Our bandwidth is only 10 [megabytes] right now, so if they're all zooming at the same time that's a challenge for our bandwidth," Sage said.

Plus, he said there aren't enough devices in the home for all four students to attend online school at the same time.

Meanwhile, students in some other Wyoming districts are forging ahead with a full online curriculum. And that's likely to widen existing inequalities between schools.

"If you are from a district that already had a sort of blended system, your transition would be much smoother," said Mandy Smoker Broaddus with the nonprofit Education Northwest.

Smoker Broaddus is also the former Indian Education director for the state of Montana. She said the digital divide could set students at rural reservation schools in our region back during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"For any student to master the full range of content requires good instruction that is deliberate and timely. It requires that things be re-taught if students aren't getting the concepts," she said.

That's hard enough on a normal day at Wyoming's reservation schools, where students are absent at a higher rate than anywhere else in the state. But Smoker Broaddus said that without a way to directly communicate with students, teaching to that standard just isn't possible.

Arapahoe Elementary School Cultural Resource Specilist Cheri Lebeau arranges donations on a shelf where students in need can get clothes, canned food and toiletries.
Credit Savannah Maher

"As far as many of [Native students'] achievement gaps, that's definitely one piece, that kids aren't given ample time to master some of the content that some of their peers in non-reservation schools are," she said.

But in other ways, Native kids enrolled in on-reservation schools might be faring better than their peers in cities and border towns. Smoker Broaddus said that's because tribal schools are more likely to keep an eye on their home lives and their basic needs.

According to Superintendent Brown, that's the Arapahoe district's top priority. Before they were working on internet connectivity, they were making a plan to deliver meals and groceries to every kid in the district.

"One of the cool things that we are implementing this week is being able to provide supplies that aren't food supplies to students," Brown said. "One as a way to make sure that they have things like basic toiletry items. But also if we can keep them from having to go outside of their house to get those, we think that creates a safer community."

Those food deliveries have been a big help for Elk Sage's family, as grocery stores on and off the reservation face shortages.

Sage said their house is on a waiting list to get hooked up to fiber-optic internet that will better support his four kids' online classes. They will also have the option of using public wifi hotspots, donated by Wind River Internet, in the parking lots of several community halls around the reservation. For now, though, he said he's not worried about his kids falling behind academically.

"I don't even see it like that, because I don't really like that my kids spend most of their time in an institution instead of at home," Sage said. "Because the old way, we taught our children, we nurtured and supported whatever their talents were. So, this is an opportunity for people to expand their minds and think about that."

Still, this period of unequal distance learning could have an impact on students' test scores and even graduation rates down the road—measures where districts like Arapahoe tend to underperform regardless.

But Superintendent Brown sees a silver lining: that all of this will spark a deeper understanding of what rural schools are up against.

"I think it does shed some light on some of the obstacles or additional hurdles that some schools face," he said. "I suspect there will be a lot of changes for the good after this pandemic has passed."

Have a question about this story? Contact the reporter, Savannah Maher, at smaher4@uwyo.edu.

Savannah is a Report For America corps member.