About four days a week, 3rd grade teacher Karen Ruark and her two daughters drive to school to get some work done. Once they get there, Ruark parks the car—and they all pull out their laptops.
Ruark lives on Hoopers Island in Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay. Her internet access is weak and unreliable, so she works in the parking lot of her school in Dorchester County to use the WiFi there. While Ruark posts messages to her students and downloads class materials, her daughters, who are both in high school, sit in the back seat and work on their assignments. Some days, they spend close to two hours in the car.
“Anytime there’s wind, rain, or high tide, we don’t have internet service. Even on a day with nice weather and a good connection, it doesn’t mean we’ll have service,” Ruark said. “If I want to post anything with directions on [the messaging app] Remind, I have to go up to the school. My internet service isn’t large enough to even send out one simple picture.”
The nation’s digital divide has been in the spotlight as school districts have transitioned to remote learning this spring. More than a quarter of U.S. homes don’t have broadband internet service, according to a Pew Research Center report from last year. District leaders, especially those who serve a high percentage of students from low-income families, have said technology access is a major challenge during these extended school shutdowns.
But it’s not just students without access to the internet—it’s also their teachers.
While only 4 percent of teachers don’t have high-speed wireless access at home, according to a nationally representative Education Week survey of 785 teachers, it’s particularly a problem in rural areas, where broadband internet service is spotty, expensive, or nonexistent.
“Educators are now assumed to have devices and internet access and unlimited data to do their job, and [in some cases], they don’t,” said Cheryl Bost, the president of the Maryland State Education Association.
The lack of reliable, high-speed internet can make an already overwhelming job of pivoting to online instruction even more stressful, teachers say.
“I’ve got teachers that are calling me in the middle of the night, [saying], ‘I just need to talk to someone, I’m so frustrated. It takes me 20 minutes just to open the page,’” said Katie Holbrook, the president of Dorchester Educators, the local association that represents teachers in the Maryland school district that stretches across hundreds of miles of farmland and waterways.
Some teachers have been put on three-month waiting lists for internet service at their houses, she said. And teachers who have school-aged children at home have the additional stressor of trying to juggle multiple video calls and other demands on their weak internet service.
Carla Swenson, an elementary STEM teacher, lives eight miles outside of Glasgow, Mont., an isolated town dubbed by the Washington Post as the “middle of nowhere.” She has internet access at home, but it’s not strong enough for her and her son, a high school freshman, to both be on a Zoom call at the same time.
“My husband and I always told him there’s nothing that should ever come between you and your education,” she said. But now, “we had to have an argument—Mom has to be on Zoom right now, and I need to be because I’m paying the mortgage.”
Districts Provide WiFi Hotspots
In addition to providing devices for students, school districts are trying to make sure their teachers are connected, too. But only 1 percent of teachers said their district or school is paying for their internet access at home, EdWeek’s survey found.
In Dorchester County, where Ruark works, all teachers are receiving a $37 monthly stipend for the use of their personal internet and cellphones, a spokeswoman said.
Meanwhile, Lee County Public Schools on the coast of southwest Florida has spent $720,000 buying 3,000 mobile hotspots with cellular data service for students and staff without internet access at home. District officials set aside about 300 hotspots for teachers and other instructional staff to get first.
“It wouldn’t do any good for three or four students to have an internet hotspot when a teacher doesn’t have internet access and is responsible for many more students,” said Trey Davis, the chief information officer of the 90,000-student school district.
Some of those educators didn’t have internet at home because they live in hard-to-reach areas, while others couldn’t afford it, he said.
“We all realize that in general, teachers don’t get paid what they should be paid, so we look to support our teachers in any capacity we can,” Davis said.
Brainerd Public Schools, a rural district two hours outside of Minneapolis, gave hotspots to 35 staff members who didn’t have internet access at home. For Aline Glib, an early-childhood special education teacher, that hotspot has made it possible to do her job at home.
“A lot of the things I need to do for my kids are making videos for them to watch,” she said. “I need to do a lot of things by video, and so that takes quite a bit of uploading. ... It would have been almost impossible to do a seven-minute video on our internet.”
Other school districts have allowed teachers to go into empty classrooms to work, as long as they follow social-distancing protocols.
In Detroit, for example, school officials opened up one school building for teachers who don’t have internet access at home. Only three teachers are working there, a district spokeswoman said in an email.
‘It’s Really Crazy’
Uneven internet coverage has always been a major equity issue, teachers say, but the extended school closures have put a bigger focus on the problem.
“This is showing our deficits in areas of need,” said Bost, the head of the Maryland state teachers’ union. “Even when we go back to what some people would call normal, these are still issues that we have to address.”
Bost said she hopes that going forward, states will invest more in infrastructure for rural areas, as well as in more funding for schools.
Swenson, the Montana teacher, is the president of the local teachers’ union—and this crisis has made her consider bringing at-home internet access for teachers to the bargaining table, she said. However, she noted, that would likely mean sacrificing a pay raise.
For now, teachers are just trying to make it work.
Amanda Robinson, a high school math teacher in the Dorchester County school district, lives on her family’s farm, too far from the main roads to get cable internet. She has unlimited data on her phone, but once she uses a certain amount, it becomes impossible to do anything other than check email. Her school laptop can’t connect to a mobile hotspot anyway, and she doesn’t have a personal computer. She’s applied for wireless internet through a local provider, but she’s stuck on a waiting list and hasn’t heard back.
For now, she’ll sometimes drive two miles to her mom’s house, which is closer to the main road and has the internet, to do a Zoom meeting. Other times, she’ll take her three kids—ages 12, 8, and 4—to work at her sister’s house, which is a mile and a half away. Her sister, who is also a teacher, has two small children, ages 4 and 2.
“All five of them are playing, and she’ll be on a call with one of her students, and I’ll have a staff meeting or be on a call with one of my students,” Robinson said. “There are times … when it’s really crazy.”
A version of this article appeared in the May 13, 2020 edition of Education Week as Teachers Without Internet Work in Parking Lots, Empty School Buildings During COVID-19