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Endless buffering: Local schools try to solve students’ internet access issues on their own

By Colin Deppen, The Incline; Jeff Stitt, Mon Valley Independent; and Jamie Wiggan, McKees Rocks Gazette 2.0

TyLisa C. Johnson of PublicSource, Jordan Woman of the Brown and White at Lehigh University, and Zoey Angelucci and Logan Garvey, both of Point Park University, contributed reporting to this project.

This story was produced as part of a collaborative reporting project by the Pittsburgh Media Partnership. Learn more about our partners in the collaborative and sign up for the partnership’s newsletter to get weekly summaries of the region’s most important stories.

Photo by Nate Smallwood

Michael Amick, Sto-Rox curriculum director, was able to secure 500 devices by cold calling Staples.

Carla Rathway could hear her youngest son's frustration from the other room. She knew the clamor meant the internet was acting up again and keeping 12-year-old Preston from his school work. It happened all the time.

"He's like, 'Oh my gosh,' when it's buffering or locking him out,” Rathway said, adding she also overhears him saying, "'I hate this internet.'"

Like scores of Pennsylvania students, Preston, a seventh grader at Belle Vernon Area School District in Westmoreland County, and his brother, 15-year-old tenth-grader Dylan, were in their second month of online learning this October. But the brothers were doing it all without a reliable high-speed internet connection at home, where they live across the county line in Fayette County.

In place of one, Preston and Dylan relied on an ad hoc network of erratic mobile hotspots and visits to relatives in order to complete their assignments.

Makeshift solutions, like these, exist all around them.

Elsewhere in Fayette County, public school students are going to emergency facilities such as firehouses and churches to access the internet. And several districts are experimenting with broadcasting classes on TV at an appointed time -- instead of having students log online.

In neighboring Washington County, one school sent out vans with mobile hotspots meant to help extend the area’s Wi-Fi connections. Farther north, districts in Beaver and Butler counties put access points on school buildings so that families can park in the school lots to use the internet. And across the region, small businesses are opening up their internet access to students.

Internet service providers such as Comcast — one of the largest home providers in the country — say their coverage areas are constantly and naturally expanding. But experts point to the literal race underway to equip young learners in Pennsylvania and say that none of this is happening or working quickly enough.

In 2013, Pennsylvania awarded millions of dollars in tax credits to private companies to improve broadband internet in rural areas — without requiring them to actually invest there. Last fall, the state legislature created a new program meant to replace it, offering similar incentives to the telecom industry. Advocates are skeptical that it’ll close the divide between those who have high-speed internet access and those who don’t.

Closer to Pittsburgh, where internet service providers have made coverage more reliable but not always affordable, students are taking advantage of the providers’ assistance programs, relying on deeply discounted access to the resource that, as the pandemic rages on, connects them to their classmates and teachers.

Similar or identical stories can be found in rural and urban districts across the commonwealth.

While the underlying access gaps aren't new, this pandemic might prove to be a tipping point in how we view the service: privilege vs. utility.

Until then, solutions remain piecemeal and almost wholly reliant on private sector whims or the triage efforts of startups and nonprofits.

"Everybody says we'll look into it,” Dylan’s dad, Brian, said about their bids for assistance. “That's what everybody says.”

A desperate rush as schools spend millions for quick fix

When Gov. Tom Wolf ordered all Pennsylvania schools closed for in-person learning in March, districts pivoted quickly to online-only models with varying degrees of success and crisis-measured expectations. The governor’s order was extended for the duration of the 2019-2020 school year in April, but reopening plans for the following school year — the one we’re in now — were largely left up to local officials. Some chose a wait-and-see approach.

When the summer brought no miracles — no vaccine, no real reduction in new COVID-19 cases — those districts joined others nationwide in scrambling to secure the technology students needed for a post-summer continuation of online learning.

This included devices, like tablets and laptops, needed to use online learning tools. It also meant technology that brings the internet into the home, namely portable beacons called hotspots that rely on cellular networks, which are used by those who aren’t served by commercial internet providers. For those who were, the districts sought ways to offer a discounted service.

Many of the 157 public schools in the seven-county region that makes up the Pittsburgh metropolitan area were able to cover the costs of these devices from their operating budgets or with fed