I-TEAM: COVID-19 exposes, creates deeper digital divide for students

Published: Aug. 6, 2020 at 6:02 PM EDT
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ALLENDALE, S.C. (WRDW/WAGT) - While some parents chose online learning for their children this school year, other parents are left with no choice but to allow their children to learn at least part-time from home.

Online learning may help to protect students and teachers from the virus, but it’s exposing a bigger problem: a digital divide. This digital divide could create an even bigger educational divide.

Working and learning from home is our new normal during this public health crisis. The data shows staying at home slows down the spread of COVID 19, but an I-Team investigation found it comes at a price for many students living in rural and poor communities.

And there are many rural and poor communities in the Two-State.

Let’s take you to the cornfields and scenic pastures of Route 301.

In the 1950s, this stretch of highway brought northerners through Allendale, South Carolina. The town’s location became the perfect pit stop for travelers to stop in and grab a bite to eat or a few winks before hitting the road again.

These days, only a skeleton remains of this once-bustling tourist town.

“Now there are parts of it that people call a ghost town,” Phyllis Smart, who helps deliver food to the area, said. “A lot of resources that they would have had they don’t have anymore.”

Every day, Smart gives brown paper sacks of food to families in Allendale and the surrounding counties. We met her at a small church that sits just outside of the city of Allendale.

“Martin, in and of itself, is a small little rural area,” Smart said. “I never knew much about it until we started feeding here.”

Food is just of the many needs here.

“They are very much in need, and they are in need because we have so much discussion about broadband, and Martin is one of the places that needs broadband,” Smart said.

If you’ve ever traveled through Martin or Allendale to the beach, then you know -- internet reception, at least on cellular devices, is hard to come by.

We found nearly half of the county does not have access to broadband internet and those that do have it can’t do much with it.

We found the internet speed here is nearly 60 percent slower than the state average and more than 130 percent slower than the national average. Too slow for YouTube, too slow for FaceTime, and definitely too slow for Zoom with a teacher.

“I am really concerned with how learning is going to be for them,” Smart said. “They went through almost a third of this year this way, and if we don’t have internet, then I know they didn’t have internet.”

Allendale County has high incidences of COVID, and it’s increasingly spreading throughout the community.

In mid-July, Dr. Margaret Gilmore, the superintendent of Allendale County schools, took to Facebook Live to explain the county’s back-to-school plan.

“A-day students will come Monday and Tuesday. B-day Wednesday and Thursday. The days students are not face-to-face, they will still be in school but at a different location and that’s at home,” Gilmore said.

Stephen Pruitt is the president of the southern regional educational board.

“There are still counties that don’t have cell towers, much less have internet accessibility,” Pruitt said.

Allendale isn’t the only county disconnected.

We found more than 30 percent of people in neighboring Bamberg County don’t have access to the internet and nearly 20 percent of people in Barnwell County don’t have it either. Even Aiken County is spotty at times. Nearly 10 percent of people there don’t have it.

The digital divide spans across the river to Georgia, too. About 30 miles southeast of the Augusta sits Jefferson County -- home of the Warriors.

Nearly 800 students are enrolled there. Nearly 70 percent of the students are African-American and more than 40 percent of the total number of students live in poverty.

Our analysis found students here are already struggling to meet state standards. The governor’s office student achievement gave the high school an “F” and the district overall a “D”. The county also fails when it comes to broadband by a staggering number. Nearly 90 percent of people here don’t have access to the internet fast enough to Zoom with a teacher.

A quarter of Burke County is without, too. The digital divide is so large in Glascock and Warren counties that they show up on the map as white, meaning no internet at all.

“The digital divide is a real thing, and it’s a real concern for rural and even some urban areas,” Pruitt said.

Even in urban areas like Richmond County, 5 percent of the county does not have access to broadband.

According to this reopening survey sent to Richmond County parents, around 15 percent of students do not have access to the internet or device or both.

“That is actually a paramount issue is how do we get services to those students,” Pruitt said. “How do you provide them with the service but you also got to think about the equipment. There are some households where there is one computer that has to be shared among one or two siblings not to mention the parent.”

Georgia and South Carolina are working to connect the digital divide.

The Richmond County Public School District received a grant worth more than $2.5 million from the state to provide laptops to students.

We also found the federal government provided the South Carolina Department of Education with more than $216 million in CARES Act money. About $200 million is supposed to go to school districts like Allendale County.

“Where we already had deficits, it could create a larger magnitude to that deficit simply because they don’t have access to even direct instruction now,” Pruitt said. “And that’s a real problem.”

We analyzed state data and found the Allendale County School District already lags behind the state’s graduation rate. Nearly half of students here do not meet expectations in reading, writing, and mathematics.

Molly Spearman, South Carolina’s superintendent, took over the district in 2017 after declaring a state of emergency in Allendale County public schools due to the majority of the schools failing to show improvement. The state continues to run the district to this day.

“A lot of people are struggling, yes, they are, and that’s because a lot of plants in the area have closed down,” Pruitt said

People were struggling here long before COVID-19 hit Allendale County

The median income is about half of the state’s median income -- only about $24,000 a year. Nearly 40 percent of children here live below the poverty line. The majority of the families here are minorities.

“I am very concerned about the kids right now,” Pruitt said. “At this point, we are feeding 1,100 kids a day.”

Those kids who can’t afford to fall into an even bigger educational gap because of a digital divide.

Allendale public schools are providing students with WiFi hotspots and devices, but that only works if a student lives in an area where a cell phone will work.

The South Carolina Department of Education is hoping to connect the digital divide through a new technology called datacasting. SCETV will send instructional material families through their TV antenna or tuner. The pilot program is still in the developmental stage.

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