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East St. Louis Families Scramble For Internet Access To Engage In Remote Learning

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Derik Holtmann
/
Belleville News-Democrat
As the coronavirus continues to keep students out of school, parents like East St. Louis resident Melissa Lawson struggle to provide internet access for children's online classes. Lawson uses her phone, with a limited data package, as a hot spot.

This story was originally published in the Belleville News-Democrat.

EAST ST. LOUIS — Melissa Lawson does whatever she can to ensure her children have a great education.

The single mom of three juggles working as a licensed cosmetologist, a Zumba instructor and a school’s lunch and recess monitor while ensuring she has the money to keep her children at Sister Thea Bowman Catholic School and Gibault Catholic High School.

But now that Lawson’s children are remote learning this school year, she’s had to double her efforts because she can’t afford internet service in her home.

She leaves her phone with her kids while she goes to work so they can use her hotspot for school.

“You can only do so much with that,” Lawson, an East St. Louis resident, said about using her phone’s hotspot. “I’ve tried to compensate in different ways to help my children to continue their education. We all have somebody who may have internet [service] in their homes, but not many people are willing to have people in their houses, especially with this COVID thing.”

Many families in East St. Louis - a Black-majority community where nearly 40% of residents live below the federal poverty line - can’t afford internet service and struggle to find ways for their children to do their remote learning.

East St. Louis and nearby Washington Park have 200 or less residential fixed internet connections per 1,000 households, the lowest rate in St. Clair County, according to an analysis of Federal Communications Commission data based on census tracts. The FCC data is the most recent on residential fixed internet connections in the country and was updated in 2019. The data also shows that predominantly white and more affluent communities like Belleville and O’Fallon have at least 800 residential internet connections per 1,000 households

With remote learning at area schools due to COVID-19, families without internet access have to rely on limited resources so their children won’t be left behind. It’s a routine that Lawson already adapted for her family even before the pandemic began after she was severely injured in a car accident and was forced to cut costs, including internet service, to make ends meet.

“Sometimes, we would go to a McDonald’s parking lot and use their Wi-Fi, and even with that, you only get so much with the hotspot,” Lawson said. “Then you run into the problem of what if my laptop or my iPad dies. And I don’t have a nice car, so it doesn’t have the plug-ins to charge your phone and things like that.”

Schools are trying to fill in the gaps for low-income families like Lawson’s with alternatives like mobile hotspots, but access issues remain.

LACK OF HOTSPOTS

Sister Thea Bowman, where two of Lawson’s children go to school, offered hotspots to students shortly after stay-at-home orders went into effect last spring.

“We found a lot of the students did not have adequate internet access,” said Dan Nickerson, the school’s principal for the past five years. “Either they didn’t have any internet service in their home or they would have to rely on trying to hotspot off of a phone, but some phones have limited data on it, so you can imagine after a 40-minute class and all of their data was gone. There were a lot of issues like that going on.”

Nickerson said about 35% of the roughly 100 families in his school were having internet access issues. The school partnered with Innovative Technology Education Fund, a St. Louis nonprofit that funds advanced technology opportunities for underserved schools, to distribute 10 hotpots in the spring on a first-come, first-served basis. Sister Thea Bowman also set up a learning center for 35 students who either don’t have internet access at home or whose parents work during the day.

Nickerson said he’s working on providing more hotspots, although he’s aware that his efforts won’t entirely fix the digital divide.

“ In working for this school for quite a few years now, I know what other schools have,” Nickerson said. “We do a lot of research on what’s the best way to make sure we’re educating our students as best as we can, but I can tell you a lot of those were just out of reach for us as a school to purchase financially, or we knew that the students didn’t have the device or Internet connectivity to be able to use them. Even if you have a phone with data you can’t do a lot of the things you’d do with a laptop.”

Even with a hotspot, internet access can be spotty, especially when multiple people are using it at the same time, triggering occasional lost connections. That has happened with Lawson’s family.

“There was a time when all three kids had to be on Zoom in class at the same time, so it was an internet issue and a device issue,” said Lawson, who was given a hotspot by the school in the spring before needing to return it in August. “You just have enough, although the schools provided them with a school computer.

Jordyn Tow, Lawson’s oldest child, is a junior at Gibault Catholic High School in Waterloo, about a 30-minute drive from East St. Louis. She watches her 12-year-old brother and 6-year-old sister while her mom goes to work.

“During the day, I have free periods, so I use my free periods to do my work because I also have to make sure my sister is in class and help her with her work,” said Jordyn, who is 16. “Then I also have to make sure my little brother is doing his work.”

Although she receives help from classmates and teachers, who often record lessons for later viewing, Jordyn recalled several times when she lost the connection while virtually attending class.

“I was in class and we were watching a movie,” Jordyn said. “I couldn’t hear the movie because it kept breaking up but the people on the other end could. My sister was in class at the same time, so that made it worse, and then it kicked me off the call. So I was like, ‘Ok, let me get back on the call so I don’t get in trouble for missing class’. And it happens all the time. I don’t know why. It’ll say ‘call failed’ or it’ll disconnect my sister while she’s in class, so that happens a lot and it takes out of our learning.”

Tam Patterson, whose child attends Sister Thea Bowman, said her son had similar issues while virtually learning. Like Lawson, Patterson is a single mom who doesn’t have internet service and was using a hotspot given to her by the school last spring before she had to return it before the school year started.

“We’re just piggybacking off of someone else’s internet right now,” said Patterson, who is an East St. Louis native and lives in Belleville. “It’s not as strong, but it’s getting us through. I wanted to ask [the school about getting the hotspot back], but it’s just kind of embarrassing because they did offer it to us and we still need it. When someone does something nice for you, you’re grateful for it, but I just didn’t want it to seem like it was a necessity even though it is.”

Patterson said she can’t afford internet service due to her income. She worked at the west branch of Belleville City Library before she was furloughed in the spring.

“I’m a single parent, and I didn’t have a job for a whole year,” Patterson, 48, said. “For a whole year, we had people helping us with other things but not with the internet, because that’s a luxury. Then I went to work part-time and I made just enough money to cover just the basics, but the good part about it is that I work at a library, so I could help my son with his homework. But the downside of it is that the library is closed after 8 p.m and my son needed more help.”

SUPPORT FROM THE DISTRICT

East St. Louis School District 189 has distributed about 2,000 hotspots from AT&T across its 10 schools based on campus enrollment.

Every student received a Chromebook, and the district also has Wi-Fi sticks that can be used for personal computers. Since March, the district has spent $3,500 on startup costs for hotspots. The monthly costs for the hotspots is $125,000, which the district started paying in June.

Dr. Tiffany Gholson, director of parent and student support services for District 189, understands how the lack of internet access along with adjusting to the new environment of remote learning can overwhelm families.

“For both families and students, the challenges of remote learning intensify the trauma they may already be facing due to the COVID pandemic,” Gholson said. “Plus, we know many of these families were already coping with challenges such as poverty, violence, homelessness, substance abuse and more. These compounding conditions can create or exacerbate anxiety, insomnia, suicidal ideation, or depression.”

Gholson said the district is helping those families by making home visits and ensuring that the transition to online learning is as smooth as possible for families who are having difficulty with technology. The district also has weekly sessions for parents to share tips and build community with each other.

Tech integration specialists with the district have created internet guides for those having issues logging on. Gholson also said her staff plans on doing more one-on-one work with students.

Michelle Thompson, who lives in Washington Park, has kids attending Mason-Clark Middle School and East St. Louis Senior High School in District 189. She can’t afford internet service, so her family has been relying on the one hotspot given by the district.

“That was just a doozy because I was working remotely and also them trying to log on, it was like too much data traffic at one time and was overloading the hotspot, so sometimes my meeting would lag or their meetings would lag with their teachers,” Thompson said.

“It’s been a struggle. The way it’s set up is that they’re sitting in front of the computer taking different classes from 9 a.m. to 2:30, so being on the computer that long and trying to make sure there’s enough data on the hotspot so they can complete their lessons for the day is a struggle.”

“MAKE IT EQUAL”

Norma Patterson, pastor of Good Shepherd of Faith United Church of Christ in East St. Louis, has been at the forefront of demanding solutions for the lack of internet access in underserved communities like her hometown. She’s the president of the Illinois and Iowa branch of the Gamaliel Network, an organization that encourages community and faith leaders to advocate for the issues affecting them.

In July, the network announced its #ConnectMe campaign that calls for broadband to be a public utility.

The Gamaliel Network is working on a plan to push for legislation that would require the Illinois Broadband Advisory Council to consider what it would be like to make broadband more accessible. The network is planning to meet with Sen. Tony Muñoz, a Chicago Democrat and a sponsor of the proposed legislation Senate Bill 3998, to have hearings across the state about the issue in an effort to create an actual bill.

“You don’t need anybody to turn your light switch on for the electricity,” Patterson said. “You don’t need anybody to call to turn your faucet on for running water because it’s automatically there. That’s all we’re asking for is give us broadband in every household just like a public utility so people don’t have to run around to figure out how their kids are going to study.”

``Those people who don’t have it are totally left out. Make it equal. We need it. Everybody needs it.”

Matt Schmit, the director of the Illinois Office of Broadband, said he’s been having conversations with District 189 since the spring on how to address the internet access issue in East St. Louis by directing them to vendors for hotspots and Chromebooks.

“It was at the time when CARES Act funding was just coming down the pipe, and the State Board of Education was looking at how to work with school districts on setting up funding opportunities,” Schmit said. “We had conversations about providers that could offer some services in the area and also how best to leverage those CARES Act dollars through the State Board of Education.”

Schmit said the conversation led to a digital equity package that was announced last month.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker and the Illinois State Board of Education awarded over $80 million in grants to agencies and school districts across the state to be used for purchasing hotspots and Chromebooks to help remedy the digital divide. But District 189 didn’t receive a grant. To qualify, the district needed to have 70% or less than the Evidence-Based Funding Final Percent of Adequacy, which is the calculated cost of educating all students. The number is based on funding the district receives from the state and local resources. District 189 was just above that 70% threshold.

In April, the Pritzker administration released a drive-up Wi-Fi hotspot map for Illinois students who lack internet access at home. There were no hotpot locations listed in East St. Louis. Schmit said that’s either because a public hotspot location that can handle multiple users at once doesn’t exist in the area or that agencies in East St. Louis didn’t provide the information. Schmit didn’t know which.

Schmit said his office doesn’t have any specific plans on remedying the internet access issue in East St. Louis, but he said they’re looking forward to doing more digital equity work, like the grant package that District 189 didn’t receive, along with planning to invest in broadband infrastructure in areas where internet is inaccessible.

For Melissa Lawson, making internet service accessible for all families, regardless of income, is an issue that demands urgency. Her kids’ future depends on it.

“It would be nice if some of these internet companies can work with us,” Lawson said. “Everything works with technology, and I feel like why should we be restricted in the poor community. We deserve to have the same access and things that other people do. We deserve to have those same things. I’m not saying that we don’t have to work for it, but maybe they can offer some incentives so we can have it.”

Deasia Paige is a reporter with the Belleville News-Democrat, a reporting partner of St. Louis Public Radio.

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