BEATTYVILLE, Ky. – John Ross worries about his children returning to their classrooms this fall with coronavirus cases rising in Kentucky, but he feels he doesn't have much of a choice: His family's limited internet access makes it nearly impossible for the kids to keep up with schoolwork from home.
“They’re going to have their education,” the father of three in rural Lee County said as he recalled his children’s struggles to do their work this spring over a spotty cellphone connection.
Lee County, a community of around 7,000 people deep in the Appalachian Mountains, is one of many rural school districts around the country where the decision over whether to bring students back into classrooms is particularly fraught. As in other places, parents and officials are concerned about the virus, but dramatically limited internet access here also means kids could fall seriously behind if the pandemic keeps them home again.
On average, the United States is still seeing about 1,000 deaths a day from the virus, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. The country has had more than 5 million confirmed cases and more than 167,000 deaths over the course of the pandemic.
Roughly 3 million students across the United States don't have access to a home internet connection. A third of households with school-age children that do not have home internet cite the expense as the main reason, according to federal Education Department statistics. But in some rural places, a reliable connection can't be had at any price.
The void is especially acute in eastern Kentucky. An AP analysis of census data shows that nearly half of students attending public school in Lee lack home access to broadband.
Many districts have been scrambling to set up paper-based alternatives to online instruction or create WiFi hot spots in school parking lots and other public areas. Kentucky's two largest districts, in Louisville and Lexington, are starting the school year online and have pledged to give mobile hot spots to students who don’t have internet at home. Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear said this week the state is exploring ways to expand internet access in hard-to-reach areas.
But if school starts as scheduled on Aug. 24 in Lee, which serves roughly 800 students, there will be only two public WiFi hot spots in the county: one at the county courthouse, and another at the public library — both near downtown Beattyville, the county seat, and a good distance from the winding, tree-lined roads where most residents live.