COLUMN: The digital divide threatens education in Lafayette

The digital divide has been a challenge since access to the internet became essential to the modern economy. But during the pandemic, this issue has gained a new sense of urgency as thousands of Lafayette students face the likelihood of online education without reliable internet access

A recent survey by the Lafayette Parish School System found more than 7,000 of its 32,000 students don’t have internet access at home. Before the pandemic, that was a challenge. Now it’s a crisis. 

Last week the school board voted to move forward with a blended learning model for the first nine weeks of the school year. Students will attend school every other day, alternating Fridays. The days they’re not at school they’ll be given homework assignments, and that’s where things get tricky.

LPSS has been making strides to put in place infrastructure to enable distance learning, namely by having enough Chromebooks to give one to every student between grades 3 and 12. The system also ordered enough Chromebooks to equip all students from kindergarten through second grade, but they’re on backorder and won’t arrive until November. 

Regardless, the lack of internet access will severely limit the Chromebooks’ usefulness. 

Part of these limitations are due to the nature of the Chromebooks themselves, which are effectively just internet terminals rather than full-fledged laptops. Some of the applications won’t run at all without internet access, and even those that do offer offline modes will be severely limited.

But the bigger limitation is in terms of what teachers can assign for homework if any of their students can’t access the internet from home. According to LPSS’s interpretation of state law, the school system is required to provide equal access to education. That’s why when schools were forced to close in the spring, education became optional and schoolwork was no longer graded, because they couldn’t guarantee that all students had access to online learning.

Moving forward with the blended learning model, any teacher with a student in their class without internet access at home would have to adjust how they teach and assign homework as though every kid in the class didn’t have reliable internet access. The digital divide won’t just hurt the educational opportunities of less fortunate students but potentially of all students in the local public school system.

LPSS has requested a legal interpretation to clarify its responsibilities. But even if the pandemic allows it to temporarily ignore equal education requirements, the logistics of blended learning create their own challenges. Teachers would have to manage two different types of curricula while balancing the needs of kids with and without the types of connections that enable online learning.  

These challenges pale in comparison to what the digital divide will mean if schools are forced to close again. Without internet access at home, distance learning can’t really happen. Sure some students may be able to go to libraries or other public access locations, but many won’t have access to the transportation or supervision necessary to make this feasible. In a low-income neighborhood like LaPlace, 27% of households don’t have a car. And if schools are shuttered and students can’t access the internet, the only other option is for them to pick up their lesson plans on paper and attempt to teach themselves at home on their own without the aid of teachers or any formal guidance.

Even if schools aren’t shut down at any point during the upcoming school year, reliance on distancing learning may still be a regular occurrence due to classrooms being forced to quarantine for two weeks at home whenever there are localized outbreaks. 

Put simply, every student without internet access at home is at risk of losing some or all of their access to education. Additionally, every student without access at home puts additional burden on schools’ ability to deliver the best possible distance learning experience to all students.

Understanding the significance of these challenges, a variety of efforts are underway to get these students connected.

LPSS Superintendent Irma Trosclair effectively deputized the nonprofit Love Our Schools a few months back to rally community expertise and resources to find a solution. The first outcome of those efforts was a marketing campaign aimed at making sure every low-income parent is aware of $10 per month basic internet packages available from Cox and AT&T to all families with kids on free and reduced school lunch programs. These services don’t require any contracts, deposits, or installation fees, and they include a free Wifi router. Cox has a special offer of two months free service is you sign up by end of September, though you can’t already be a customer of Cox or owe any past debt. AT&T’s offering is available even if you’re already a customer and owe past debt. LUS Fiber is also providing a cheaper tier of service though you have to call them for pricing. Hopefully awareness of these low-cost offerings will allow some parents to get their kids signed up in time for the school year.

Additionally, LPSS is pursuing whether and how it can legally pay for students’ home internet access. It’s expected that an opinion from the state attorney general could come as soon as the end of this week. And at the last school board meeting, school board member Tehmi Chaisson stated his strong support for getting these kids connected, promising to do whatever it took to find the money.

Unfortunately, Lafayette’s economic troubles are working against both of these solutions. Tens of thousands of people have lost their jobs, meaning for some even $10 per month may be unaffordable. And the economic downturn is threatening to rip a hole in LPSS’s already-tight finances, so any additional costs to get students home internet access will have to be offset by significant cuts elsewhere to LPSS’s budget.

There are discussions underway about potential large-scale philanthropic efforts to create new ways of getting students connected, but some of those plans may require deploying new infrastructure that can’t be done in time to solve the problem of getting every student connected when school starts Aug. 17. So stop-gap measures are also being explored, like putting WiFi extenders on schools and hotspots on school buses. Though the impact of those will again be limited by the fact that many students may not have the ability to get anywhere to learn outside of their homes on the days they can’t go to school.

Of course, Lafayette isn’t alone in these challenges, as there’s a digital divide in nearly every community in America. That means any school district unable to fully reopen its doors is facing these same obstacles right now. Lafayette does have some advantages, however, in that we have a smaller parish that’s relatively dense and urban, plus we have better connectivity at least in the city due to the presence of LUS Fiber.

But as it stands today, there is no plan in place to ensure that 100% of students are able to access the internet at home. As long as that’s the case, LPSS’s ability to educate all of our parish’s children hangs in the balance.