Internet access is arguably not a necessity like water or electricity, but especially for the young, it’s getting pretty darn close.
For students without the access to the Web at home, the constant hunt for free Wi-Fi for both social and schoolwork needs is little acknowledged.
The Pearl Bailey Library in Southeast Newport News is one of the places where the gap is illustrated daily.
“What we see in the afternoon is where the disparity is — just because you see a child with a device doesn’t necessarily mean they have access,” said Sonya Scott, senior youth information services specialist at Pearl Bailey. “What happens is a lot of these kids have the devices, but if they don’t have Wi-Fi or Internet, they’re not able to use the device.
“I think that’s what happens a lot of time with our kids. Times are a little bit hard, but that’s one of the first things parents cut.”
She said lots of students come in in the afternoon. Some get on the library computers, but a lot of them have their own devices and use the library Wi-Fi.
“There’s a lot of Facebook and the social things, but a lot of them do come in to do their homework,” Scott said. “These are digital kids and that’s how they access everything, mostly, is through the Internet.”
David Doughty, an 18-year-old senior at Denbigh High School, uses the teen computer lab at Grissom Library because he doesn’t have Internet service or a computer at home. He does schoolwork there every Sunday and said he tries to work on projects and might do some personal browsing online if he has free time.
“When teachers send you homework and it’s only meant for Internet, I think that’s wrong because some kids and students don’t even have Internet at home,” Doughty said. “So it’s hard for them. Some do and some don’t.”
He thinks a change should be made.
“Basically it would help more kids if they would get less homework using Internet,” Doughty said. “And more written homework would be better, and less Internet homework. Because some students even refuse to do their homework, because they’ll just go outside and play instead of doing their Internet homework. Some will just try their best.”
Larrissa Carroll, 17, is a junior at Denbigh who regularly uses the Internet at Grissom. She said there are usually six to eight teens in the computer lab designated for them after school during the week, and she uses the computers for both schoolwork and personal use.
“I use it for both,” Carroll said on Friday. “Today I’m just using it to look at a few things. I come in here every day after school.”
She said she has Internet service at home, but her father works later in the evening so she comes to the library.
School officials typically only keep track of Internet access within their facilities, and don’t have numbers on how many students have Internet access at home. But they are aware of the issue.
Gaps in the availability of technology cover several levels, not all of which depend on a student’s parents making the decision to spend money on and use devices and Internet service.
There are school districts in the U.S. that do not have reliable Internet service or enough broadband service to make it usable. Some residential areas are not covered by broadband Internet service or the service itself is spotty and unreliable.
It’s estimated that 76 percent of K-12 teachers assign Internet-based homework, according to Newport News Public Schools. It adds that students without Internet access at home graduate at rates 6 to 8 percent lower than similar students who have it.
Low-cost Internet is available for families that qualify for free and reduced price meals at school.
Service aside, the availability of devices such as smartphones, tablets and laptops to access the Internet is a separate issue. Some school districts such as Hampton and Isle of Wight locally have decided to supply each student with an iPad, while others such as Newport New and York County have a bring your own device program that they supplement with school-district owned devices for students who don’t have their own.
At this point, public schools can only require students to do work at home that can be downloaded at school.
Other localities in the country have tried to fill gaps in Internet access by making portable Internet hot spots available for check-out at local libraries, or setting up kiosks to beam Wi-Fi across underserved neighborhoods including public housing.
In Newport News, School Board member Douglas Brown is leading a close look at what public Wi-Fi is already available. He said that’s the first step in trying to prepare for the future of online learning.
“I would agree that the sense of urgency is not quite there yet,” Brown said. “And one of the things I’m pushing is having a greater sense of urgency around online access. I do think it is the direction that education is moving in the schools.
“Right now we’re not dependent on them having online access,” he said. “I’m open to all solutions. The first step is you have to determine what level of access you have.”
Brown would like to use Google maps to plot areas of available free Wi-Fi in the local area, and then evaluate students’ proximity to them to see where gaps lie. It’s in the conceptual stage, and he acknowledged that he doesn’t know if he has a broad consensus from the School Board to support it.
“We are in the speculation mode because we do need to do the research and the study to determine what those gaps are, and where the gaps exist,” Brown said. “Is it creating a problem for students with grades, test scores and graduation rates?”
For example, Brown said he doesn’t think the public understands that Standards of Learning tests have to be taken on a computer.
“There’s just a lot more things that are being digitally driven and we’re moving down that path,” Brown said. “That’s why I’m trying to lay the groundwork now, so we’re prepared for the day when it is absolutely necessary.”
Kipp Rogers, director of secondary instruction for the York County School Division, coordinates that district’s Bring Your Own Technology program and keeps up with the latest technology trends. He said that right now, from what he’s read in recent months, smaller school divisions aren’t talking about outside school Internet access as much as larger ones.
“I think it’s a great conversation to have about providing kids access out of school,” Rogers said. “Kids that do have it think it’s a utility like water or electricity.
“We still have some schools in the nation that don’t have wireless. So we have to be careful and thoughtful about that.”