Rural school districts face cell, internet service challenges

Should school districts have to move classes online, what does that mean for areas without reliable, affordable, internet service?
Rural school districts face cell & internet service challenges
Published: Jul. 21, 2020 at 6:28 PM CDT
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NACOGDOCHES COUNTY, Texas (KTRE) - Just south of State Highway 21 on the eastern side of Nacogdoches County sits Chireno ISD.

“Being in a really small, rural school district, there are advantages,” Chireno ISD Superintendent Michael Skinner said. “It’s great that it’s small because there are things that are more manageable, but being so small and being so rural, there are some other added issues, so to speak, that you basically have no control over because of the location.”

After surveying parents and guardians, Chireno ISD Superintendent Michael Skinner says less than half of the roughly 380 students in the district have reliable internet at their homes. He also said a large percentage lack cell phone service.

“Even if the district could provide internet hotspots, it wouldn’t do them any good because they wouldn’t be able to connect because of where they live,” Skinner said.

The Superintendent says he and his staff will soon roll out the district’s plan for both in-person learning, with added health protocols in place, and what virtual learning may look like for the district, if a parent chooses the option for their child.

“It will be day-to-day,” he said. “It won’t be where you get it for the week and then you can work on it at your leisure; maybe put it off until Thursday or Friday to get everything done. There’s going to have to be a day-to-day component, where the students will have to interact daily with those teachers in completing the assignments.”

As of publication, Chireno ISD’s first day back is August 19th. Last week, the Texas Education Agency announced districts can decide to have the first four weeks of instruction online and an option for an additional four weeks, with a waiver request to the Agency.

“For you to be able to do that for the first four weeks, or if you go any longer, you have to be able to provide instruction for 100% of your kiddos,” Skinner said. “In other words, they have to have devices. They have to have reliable cell service. That’s not a reality out in Chireno.”

Part of Chireno ISD’s plan is figuring out what the district will do, if it has to shutdown and go fully virtual with instruction.

“Would that mean the students would come up, sit in the parking lot of the school to use the Wi-Fi of the school to be able to download lessons or instructions, work offline and upload the next day,” Skinner said. “That’s a possibility, but that’s a real inconvenience to our families.”

He says they have improved and will sustain increased health protocols inside the schools like more cleaning, sanitizing frequently touched surfaces and replacing water fountains with bottle refill stations. But he says safety for all is the top priority.

“If someone feels for a health reason and safety factor that the virtual is best for them, this is going to be an option that they are going to be able to choose,” Skinner said. “We stress that if at all possible, the in-person [instruction] is going to be the best route, and we’re going to do everything we can to ensure the safety, social distancing and protocols are being adhered to.”

Earlier this month, the district announced all school supplies from Grades Pre-K through 12th will be provided by the district free of charge to cut down on shared supplies. Students will be responsible for their own backpack and headphones. Superintendent Skinner says the district has applied for grants to help provide more devices to students, as well.

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