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Florida's Remote Education Effort Reveals Worse Digital Divide In Rural Areas

The FCC maps which areas of the county are covered via broadband. But state Reps. Loranne Ausley and Brad Drake say the map is misleading
Federal Communications Commission
The FCC maps which areas of the county are covered via broadband. But state Reps. Loranne Ausley and Brad Drake say the map is misleading

Florida’s journey into remote and online education is revealing new divisions among the haves and have-nots: those with internet access, and those without it. The gap is most prevalent in rural parts of the state where school districts are using workarounds to keep kids engaged. The issue is bolstering an argument that’s been simmering for a while now: is the internet a want, or a need?

The onset of the novel coronavirus sent state and local education leaders scrambling. Within weeks, school districts pivoted from traditional in-person classroom modes of operation to remote learning. The state expanded the Florida Virtual School to take on more students, districts handed out laptops to families without them, and in some places, the student engagement rate is above 90 percent. Then, there are places like North Florida’s Liberty County.

“We are a huge county, land wise. And our kids are not receiving as many of the benefits of some of the urban districts that have ready access to internet services," said Liberty County School Superintendent David Summers.

In nearby Jefferson County, the laptops don’t really matter if only half the students have access to the internet. According to the federal communications commission, about 80% of the 24 million Americans without reliable internet access live in Rural Areas. Even in the state’s Capital City, the Leon County School district has mounted hotspots on school buses. District spokesman Chris Petley says 15 of them are parked both within and outside of the city.

“We’ve put in a $30,000 investment into these 15 buses that will be out in the community But it’s about the students, it’s not about, right now, the financial impact of it. We want to ensure our students are provided every opportunity no matter where they live," Petley said.

“This is not going to work in areas where there is no internet," said Rep. Loranne Ausley, D-Tallahassee. She was alongside the district as it revealed the first of its hotspot buses in the South City neighborhood of Orange Avenue Apartments.

"So this is a big issue and it’s something that has to be addressed and has to be addressed now," Ausley said.

She co-sponsored a bill earlier this year that calls for the state to do its own review of internet capabilities. She, along with North Florida Republican Rep. Brad Drake don’t capture the reality on the ground. Speaking in a January state House Committee, Drake likened the situation to a “taste of the good life,” people want more.

“We get a taste of the good life and connectivity," Drake told the House's Energy and Utilities Committee. "When we go to work, when we go to school if we’re in college…or going to town…but when we return to our houses, we’re without it again.”

Ausley and Drake want the state to go after millions in federal money meant to expand broadband into rural areas. Congress approved the money in 2018, but local areas have to apply for it. The proposal is one of the hundreds yet to be sent to Governor Ron DeSantis.

Even the U.S. Department of Agriculture has a statement on its website calling increased connectivity, a “modern-day necessity–not simply an amenity–in today’s information-driven global economy.”

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Lynn Hatter is a Florida A&M University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Lynn has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas. She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative. When she’s not working, Lynn spends her time watching sci-fi and action movies, writing her own books, going on long walks through the woods, traveling and exploring antique stores. Follow Lynn Hatter on Twitter: @HatterLynn.