Where the internet ends: Connections slow or nonexistent for rural Missouri schoolkids
There are evenings where Brittney Berry’s five children fight over the internet connection at her rural south-central Missouri home. If one tries to research a homework assignment while another sibling streams a video, someone’s getting kicked offline.
“It’s super crappy,” Berry said.
It’s a scenario that plays out in the homes of families throughout the vast Glenwood R-8 School District in Howell County near West Plains, as well as other rural parts of Missouri. There, families have few options for home internet access — none high-speed or cheap.
In April, Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens pledged $45 million in state and federal funding to expand high-speed internet to rural schools.
"It's essential first of all for kids in rural Missouri to have that high-quality broadband access not just in the school but at home, so that they have access to every available opportunity," the Republican said at the state fair last month.
That’s welcome news to Plainview Principal Brenda Reed, whose K-8 school is about an hour southeast of Springfield.
“We have poor service,” she said. “It’s bad three days a week.”
But Plainview is an exception. Several rural principals and superintendents told St. Louis Public Radio that internet speeds within their schools are adequate. And internet access in Missouri’s schools is improving, with 95 percent now connected to broadband, according to the nonprofit Education Superhighway. The organization estimates 101,605 students still need more bandwidth in their classrooms.
“Our internet service is very good, very reliable,” Glenwood Superintendent Wayne Stewart said. His school has 300 students in K-8 grades and pays $15,000 a year even with discounts through the federal E-Rate Program.
“That’s half a teacher,” Stewart said.
A one-to-one ratio of computers to students is a target for many school districts. In Texas County, students at Success K-8 school each get their own laptops to use.
The real challenge, educators say, is getting better internet in students’ living rooms. Success School District Superintendent David Russell said most students can’t use their laptops at home. And in the Glenwood district, which stretches to the Arkansas border, internet service gets spottier the farther south.
“If they can’t do (work) at school, then they pretty much can’t do it,” Stewart said.
The Berry family pays $75 per month for DSL internet at speeds of 1.5 megabytes per second (mbps). In most major cities, internet for that price is twice as fast as the benchmark 25 mpbs broadband speed, according to the Open Technology Institute at New America.
“We just do what we can and then hope somebody better comes along later on,” Berry said.
Stephanie Cundall’s two daughters come home with assignments that require computer research three or four nights a week. It’s $80 a month for a pre-paid satellite internet service at their Howell County home several miles from town. But the plan lasts about half the month.
“It’s pretty good for a little while, until my kids get on there and start doing a lot of research and they use all the gigabytes that we can afford,” Cundall said.
After that, she said, it’s a hunt for bandwidth. The town library isn’t open late enough. The kids will stay after school, or Cundall turns her cellphone into a WiFi point.
“And then the bill on my phone goes up,” she said, adding, “There’s no good way to access the internet and make it feasible for a family to function.”
The search for faster internet keeps West Plains High School senior Sydney Jackson closer to town sometimes. Internet at her family’s farm 20 miles west of the city is “really slow.” That means she ends up at her grandparents’ home, where the internet is faster.
“Sometimes I would just spend the night with them if it was really time-consuming,” she said.
Teachers at West Plains High School try to be flexible, allowing extra time for assignments that require extensive web searches. The school’s librarian also comes in early and stays late so students can use computers.
Greitens said the additional state and federal money will be enough to get the last of the state’s rural schools connected to fiber-optic internet. But the federal government estimates a million people in rural Missouri lack access to broadband internet at home, and getting them up to speed will be a slower process.
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