From using Smart Boards to assigning online research, teachers are expected to incorporate technology in their classrooms. It’s taken for granted that students have access to the internet at home.
“I use technology in every class and all of my teachers assign homework that requires the internet,” said Trey Cavaan, a junior at Springfield Central High School.
Still, some students have difficulty accessing digital devices and internet service outside of school. Census data shows an estimated 17% of U.S. students do not have access to computers at home and 18% do not have home access to broadband internet in what has become known as the homework gap, the Associated Press reported.
According to an AP analysis of households with children in Massachusetts public schools, 13.18% did not have broadband, compared to a national average of 21.85%. The analysis found 4.36% had no internet at all, including mobile data plans, compared to a national average of 6.27%, and 12.69% did not have a computer, compared to a national average of 16.24%.
Rural communities like Plainfield in Hampshire County have been plagued by unreliable or nonexistent internet access for years.
“There are rows of cars parked out in front of our library because they can pick up the library system and they are doing homework in the front seat while their parents are running the car,” said Kimberly Longey, the volunteer manager for the Plainfield Light and Telecommunications Department.
Plainfield is one of 19 rural communities building their own fiber-optic network through taxpayer dollars and a state grant. After 13 years of work, Longey said, construction begins next month.
AP data shows that 11% of students in the Mohawk Trail/Hawlemont Regional School Districts, which serve rural communities including Plainfield, have no access to the internet after school and 13% have no computer at home.
“Part of the educational inequity faced by our students is our geography,” said Superintendent Michael Buoniconti, who is also chairman of the Massachusetts Rural Schools Coalition. “In many parts of our districts there is no connectivity whatsoever, so the opportunities to send students home with Chromebooks and have them be able to do basic research or anything that requires the use of the internet — there is a segment of our population that just doesn’t have that. The poverty in rural areas is comparable to the poverty level in urban areas so we are being hit with both challenges.”
He said all of the schools have Wi-Fi and students in grades three to 12 are issued a Chromebook at the beginning of the school year. Those in grade seven and up can take them home.
In urban Springfield, 20.64% of students do not have access to computers outside of school and 12% have no internet access. Springfield Public Schools also have a one-to-one policy that assures every student in grade three and up have access to their own computer, with older students allowed to take them home.
“Lots of our kids have access to smart phones and gaming consoles, but what they don’t have ready access to is computers,” said Paul Foster, chief information officer for the district. “Through the one-to-one initiative we are giving them the technology they need to be successful in their school work and the ability to learn how to use the technology we all use every day.”
Michael Donato, a history teacher at Springfield Central High School, has incorporated technology into his classes with mostly positive results. Although all his assignments are paper-based, he also puts them online to make them accessible to students who miss class. Donato also uses the Remind app to reach students.
“I can remind them of things, like to make sure they bring their laptop and charger to school, which has been a bit of a struggle for some students,” he said. “I use it a lot for test nights to send a review out before the test. They can also contact me if they can’t stay after school or if they have a question for me after class.”
Cavaan is one of Donato’s students. He said he likes the convenience of having a laptop in class and at home.
“We have a computer at home, but someone is usually on it, so I would have to wait a lot later to get homework done if I didn’t have this one,” he said.
Since access to computers is becoming less of an issue in the district, improving internet access at home is the next step.
Springfield has partnered with Sprint to provide 700 wireless hot spots to high school students. The schools partnered with a company called Kajeet SmartSpot to provide hot spots to elementary students.
At the beginning of every school year, Springfield and Holyoke families can purchase internet services through Comcast at a discount — $9.95 a month, with the option to purchase an internet-ready computer for less than $150. Households with school-age children eligible for free and reduced-price lunches, all households living in U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development-assisted housing and low-income veterans are eligible for the Internet Essentials program.
“In Springfield, we’ve helped connect 15,600 people to the internet through Internet Essentials,” said Elizabeth Walden, a representative for Comcast in Western New England.
In Holyoke, 11.71% of students do not have internet access and 22.79% do not have a computer. School Receiver Stephen Zrike said students who cannot complete online assignments are not penalized.
“I want our students to be prepared for our global economy, and that involves technology. But at the same time we don’t want to negatively impact a child who does not have access,” he said.
In February the district received a grant through Verizon Innovative Learning that provided free mobile devices and data plans as well as a full-time technology coach to train teachers in effectively integrating technology into their lessons at two schools.
“This has made a huge impact in those two middle schools which have a high number of low-income students,” Zrike said.