Rural road with dramatic clouds in southern Minnesota at sundown
Rural Minnesota road with dramatic clouds at sundown
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The Bottom Line Online School and the Possible Rural Fallout

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to spread across the country, schools are heading online to stay productive.  But rural communities with meager broadband Internet access are stuck in digital wastelands with no clear path out.

The Pew Research Center reported that for 2019, 73% of American adults had a home broadband connection. But access is not evenly distributed.  While 79% of suburban and 75% of urban Americans enjoy a broadband connection, only 63% of rural Americans have broadband internet access.

According to Pew, rural areas continue to be stuck far behind urban areas in broadband access:

  • Roughly three-quarters (76%) of adults who live in rural communities say they use the internet on at least a daily basis, compared with more than eight-in-ten of those in suburban (86%) or urban (83%) areas.
  • 15% of rural adults say they never go online, compared with less than one-in-ten of those who live in urban communities (9%) and those who live in the suburbs (6%).
  • Rural areas were more likely to say that getting access to high-speed internet is a major problem in their local community: 24% say this, compared with 13% of urban adults and 9% of rural adults.

Internet service providers such as Comcast and AT&T have currently opened WIFI spots to any American who needs them because of the coronavirus. The federal government and ISPs have honed in on the digital divide during the crisis and are attempting to remedy the issue. The agreement would also waive late fees and will not terminate any service because of inability to pay.

But the digital divide cannot be solely attributed to a lack of infrastructure. Cultural differences between the urban and rural areas also plays a part. Cultural factors may help explain why, in a different Pew survey, only 36% of rural adults say the government should provide subsidies to help low-income Americans purchase high-speed home internet service, compared with 50% of urban residents and 43% of suburbanites.

The difficulty is having quality internet access and providing connectivity in any way to disadvantaged students and families. Some families have four children with one computer.  How you do you manage that? If connectivity is impossible, do you send those families paper packets to be completed? For many the school year ended in February and early March.  How do we salvage the learning time that has been lost? Summer school? Do we waive requirements for testing and graduation and hand out credit for the entire school year?

After this coronavirus crisis passes, the United States has the unique opportunity to confront our technological shortfalls within rural areas. Ignoring this segment of our society will leave millions far behind.

Bailey Takacs

Development Program Coordinator, American Center for Transforming Education
Bailey Takacs served as development program coordinator to Discovery Institutes' American Center for Transforming Education and Development team. Bailey has experiences which also include: campaign management and administrative roles with elected officials at the local, state, and federal levels of the government. He holds a B.A. in Politics and Government from Pacific Lutheran University.