Technology a challenge for some rural South Carolina school districts

Some rural districts report at least 50% of students offline

VIDEO: Technology a challenge for some rural South Carolina school districts

WILLIAMSBURG COUNTY, S.C. (WCSC) - Students and teachers are all adapting to virtual and online learning. That will be one option this Fall for families who have internet access and can afford it.

But the South Carolina Department of Education estimates at least 150,000 households with students in our state do not have internet.

Williamsburg County School District IT Director Ernest Young says when the pandemic started, students could take home paper work packets or check out a device to take home.

"More than 50% of our students do not have internet access in their homes. So that's the challenge we are faced with," Young said.

It's a challenge that's not unique to Williamsburg County. DD4 has a similar percentage of students not online.

They were one of many local districts to get creative early in the pandemic.

“We had five buses that had hot spots on them,” DD4 Director of Technology Elixzina Goodwin explained. These buses were in designated areas of the community and when they delivered lunches to those communities, the students had an opportunity to not only pick up their lunch but bring their device there and get connected to the internet.”

Spearman said "Sometimes it's affordability. Sometimes there's a line going in front of their house but they just can't afford to hook up.

Other times, internet is physically not an option in rural areas. She said SCDE is working directly with internet providers. One success story she pointed to was signing up 600 families for internet in one day in Horry County.

"So it's been tremendous progress made," Spearman said. "We're working right now to get the WiFi hotspots available. We have $20 million appropriated from the CARES Act funding for that so you'll see progress on that. And our folks are working very, very closely with school districts to identify the families that are in need and trying to decide which is the quickest and best and most efficient way to get them online."

Over the summer, districts are rushing to find more ways to spread internet to rural areas so more kids can plug in this Fall.

"We are looking at providing mobile hotspots. We're looking into another area where we can work with a vendor to provide a mesh wireless network and expand the coverage that we have at school sites to areas in the community where the students do not have access to internet," said Young.

He also says they're writing grants to secure at least $3 million needed. "It costs. Technology is expensive," he said.

Goodwin said DD4 is "looking to refresh more chromebooks this year, and we're looking to get mobile hot spots for our students who do not have internet access at home."

She says another challenge is that as more devices go home, they'll inevitably get more questions from parents and need to have staff ready to troubleshoot problems.

The Spring was a good test for that, too, she said. "To be honest with you, I think the parents and kids handled it better than we thought they would! The adjustment was major but they did really well with it."

Even bigger districts find it a struggle.

Charleston County School District estimates 10% of students, nearly 4,000, don't have internet.

Young is optimistic for the Fall. “Whether we’re in the classroom face to face or whether students are working from home, they’ll be able to get a personalized learning and be successful.”

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