By Laura Calhoun
One afternoon, Margaret Peters’ eight first-grade students at Mountain View Elementary School sit criss-cross applesauce in front of “Smartie,” Peters’ nickname for the classroom’s Epson BrightLink Smart Board.
A student excitedly jumps from the classroom rug to do the next graph problem. He picks up the Smart Board marker and waits for the online math program to load.
He waits. And waits. And waits. The rest of the students start to get antsy. When a message that her computer has lost internet connection pops up, Peters sighs and refreshes the page.
For Peters, this is a daily occurrence.
Mountain View Elementary, a Rockbridge County school in the South River district, is a prime example of the negative effects of the digital divide in rural communities. Without high speed, broadband internet access, Mountain View lags behind – literally.
“We have boxing matches every Friday to see who gets to use the internet next week,” Principal Lori Teague said.
In his first remarks as Federal Communications Commission chairman in January, Ajit Pai defined the digital divide as the division between “those who can use cutting-edge communications services and those who do not.”
The digital divide is prominent in rural communities. According to the FCC’s 2016 Broadband Progress Report, 39 percent of people living in rural areas lack access to internet download speeds of 25 megabits per second (Mbps), compared to only 4 percent of urban dwellers.
Teague attended Mountain View as a child and said the school has undergone an amazing technological transformation since she was a student. Every classroom is equipped with an Epson Smart Board, a document camera and at least two computers. The library has a computer lab with 25 desktops. The internet connection, however, has not kept up.
“The school division can provide the technology,” Teague said. “The problem is the sporadic connection in the county.”
Few options for internet service
Mountain View is currently served by CenturyLink, the only digital subscriber line (DSL) internet service provider available in Buena Vista. DSL providers like CenturyLink use telephone wires for internet connectivity.
According to the FCC’s National Broadband Map, CenturyLink provides Mountain View with download speeds between 10 and 25 Mbps.
Online email platforms require 1 Mbps download speed per user, according to personal finance website NerdWallet. By this measure, Mountain View’s bandwidth is insufficient for its more than 20 employees to access their email at once.
The digital divide in rural communities makes relying on internet-based teaching tools risky. Joan Godfrey, the speech language pathologist at Mountain View, uses iPad apps to aid many of her nonverbal students. She said she has entirely given up on apps requiring internet.
“I’ve deleted them off because I’ve reminded myself – no, that’s not an option,” Godfrey said.
Jennifer Floyd, the school’s Title I reading specialist, said her classroom changed for the better when government funding provided an iPad cart for her use. Floyd said her students respond well to online literacy tools, but the unreliable internet connection stops her from using the available technology to its full potential.
“I ask myself, is it going to work today? Is it not?” Floyd said. “Once we can get that cleaned up, it’ll be so different.”
Teague said the school intended to purchase a laptop cart full of Chromebooks, but ended up with older-model laptops because Mountain View does not have the internet connectivity necessary to accommodate Chromebooks.
“When you put a kindergarten class watching a video on YouTube, it will shut down assessment testing on the other side,” Teague said.
The State Educational Technology Directors Association recommends a download speed of 64 kilobits per second for each student taking a multiple choice assessment. If the 130 students at Mountain View all need to take an online test, the school needs a download speed of 8.32 Mbps. When other internet use at the school is included, such as staff sending emails or teachers using online resources to plan lessons, Mountain View’s bandwidth is insufficient.
The gold standard for high-speed internet connectivity is fiber optic. CenturyLink’s fiber optic connection delivers a download speed of 1 gigabit, or 1,000 Mbps. However, installing fiber optic cable in a mountainous region is costly.
Local electric cooperative BARC, which stands for Bath, Alleghany and Rockbridge counties, has been building its fiber optic network in Rockbridge County since 2013, CEO Michael Keyser said.
Phase one of BARC’s fiber construction project, which includes areas in and surrounding Kerrs Creek, Bustleburg, Fairfield and Lexington, is expected to be complete by the middle of January, Keyser said. The project has cost around $20 million so far.
Teague said BARC insinuated that Mountain View will have a fiber optic internet connection by January. Keyser said an agreement with the school has not been reached.
“There is hope that we’ll be able to include them in phase one,” Keyser said.
He declined to comment further on the project.
It’s a problem at home, too
The digital divide extends into the personal lives of the students and staff at Mountain View. Teague said at least four of her staff members live in areas that CenturyLink doesn’t service. Their only option is to go without or purchase a satellite internet service provider.
Teague said the school recently started surveying families about their internet capabilities at home. Buena Vista has a poverty rate of 27.2 percent, according to the American Community Survey. With 53 percent of Mountain View students on free and reduced lunch plans, expensive high-speed connectivity often isn’t an option.
“If I have to make a choice between feeding my family and having internet, I’ll have to make it,” Teague said.
Teague said she believes that most of the students at Mountain View have at least one smartphone in their home capable of accessing the internet. Still, many areas around the Blue Ridge mountains here lack cell phone service, cutting off some students from the World Wide Web once they leave Mountain View’s campus.
Dylan Fix, a parent of three children at Mountain View and the school nurse, said her family cannot get CenturyLink service even though she lives close to the school.
“It’s like we’re in a hole,” Fix said.
Though Mountain View lags in internet connectivity, its students still show high achievement.
Mountain View was one of seven Virginia schools named a 2017 Blue Ribbon School by the Department of Education for its exemplary performance. In 2016, Mountain View boasted a 100 percent overall pass rate in math, and a 98 percent overall pass rate in reading.
Teague said that the teachers at Mountain View are flexible in situations when technology and internet connectivity fail, which contributes to student success.
“It’s hard to switch gears smoothly. In your head, you have another idea,” Teague said. “We know that it can’t be everything.”