Rural Students and Families in Alabama Struggle Without High-Speed Internet

04.13.20

Students in Alabama who don’t have high-speed internet at home are struggling to continue their educations with public schools closed statewide due to the coronavirus pandemic.

According to Microsoft, about 3.3 million of Alabama’s 4.9 million residents do not have the minimum broadband speeds needed for video conferencing or streaming at home. In all but six of the state’s 67 counties, fewer than 40% of residents have home broadband service.

In nearly all of Alabama’s rural Black Belt counties, the percentage of residents with broadband at home is in the single digits.

State school superintendent Eric Mackey told the Montgomery Advertiser that about 60% of school districts statewide don’t have the ability to provide quality online learning to their students—even if students have internet-capable devices.

In Perry County, for example, where 80% of students are living in poverty, the tiny, rural school district received a grant five years ago to provide each student with a device that can connect to the internet. The district’s two K-12 schools have WiFi, but the vast majority of students don’t have internet at home. (Only 6.9% of Perry County residents have broadband, according to Microsoft.)

Perry County school superintendent John Heard told the Advertiser he plans to install WiFi devices in 10 school buses that students can access in their neighborhoods, but the $13,000 price tag for the buses isn’t covered by the grant and so far schools have not received federal relief money to provide internet to students. (A $2 billion proposal to help expand online access failed to make it out of the Senate last week, USA Today reported.)

“There has been no emphasis to get broadband out in these rural areas,” Superintendent Heard told the Advertiser. There’s been discussions, strategic planning, but no action, he said.

Students without internet access are being given paper packets with assignments to complete at home, but Mr. Heard said most of his students’ parents aren’t at home most of the day because they have to travel to bigger cities for work.

And many parents don’t feel prepared to help their kids with school assignments without any support, Pamela Rush told the Advertiser. Ms. Rush and her children live in Lowndes County, where just 4.8% of residents have broadband. “I’m worried about how they are going to do because I don’t have anybody to help them,” Ms. Rush said. “They need some help.”

High-speed internet is “just as essential now for a student to be competitive as electricity is,” Mr. Heard said. “It’s a global world now and to be on an equal playing field, access is a great equalizer. It’s the next most important thing we could focus on in terms of equity.”

Nationwide, nearly 12 million children live in homes without a broadband connection. A 2017 report from the Democratic Staff of the Joint Economic Committee found sharp disparities in broadband access based on race and poverty. The report found that less than half of households with incomes below $20,000 have home broadband subscriptions, while 92% of households with incomes over $75,000 reported having one.

White residents (82%) are more likely to have broadband in their homes than black (70%), Hispanic (74%), or American Indian (65%) residents.