Carrie Richards tested positive for Type A Influenza more than a week ago. She’s been in quarantine ever since.
“It feels like it’s been a month,” she said.
With no internet and no computer at her home in Vandergrift, there is little for Richards, 44, to do to occupy her mind. She scrolls through Facebook on a phone from Cricket Wireless, on a limited data plan. She reads a lot, but she can’t afford to buy any new books. She watches TV, but she doesn’t have cable.
Amid the global covid-19 pandemic, as she and her family prepare for what could be weeks of social distancing, Richards knows this is just the beginning.
The coronavirus and the country’s mass exodus indoors have highlighted a digital divide that has long plagued Americans in rural areas. Many Western Pennsylvania residents lack access to reliable — and affordable — broadband. Unable to reach the information most others take for granted, workers and public school students are at an immediate disadvantage.
Richards worked as an emergency medical technician and a nurse until 2017, when she slipped on ice at a local store and ruptured a disc in her back. Since then, she’s been unable to work. Her husband works “side jobs,” she said, to help the family get by.
The family used to use Comcast — the only broadband provider available in the area. But with their current financial situation, they still are making back payments to the company from years ago. They aren’t even paying for service now.
For a brief period, they tried satellite internet with HughesNet. But the speeds were so slow and unreliable for their location, Richards said it was like having no service at all.
“We just told them to shut it off,” she said. “It was not worth the amount of money we were paying for it.”
More than 26% of Americans in rural areas lack basic broadband, compared with only 1.7% of Americans in urban areas, according to a 2019 Federal Communications Commission report. In Pennsylvania, legislators from across the state have sought to rectify the state’s broadband infrastructure for at least three years.
“You cannot compete if you cannot connect,” said Rep. Pam Snyder, D-Washington/Fayette/Greene. “Having access to reliable high-speed internet is every bit as important as access to public water, public sewage, good roads to travel on.”
Rural broadband expansion was named a legislative priority for 2020 by the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania. In a January news release, Mifflin County Commissioner Rob Postal said reliable high-speed internet was pivotal to mobility in every industry — education, health care, business and beyond.
“It’s the rural areas that always seem to get left out or left behind,” Snyder said. “That’s not right. That’s not fair.”
The covid-19 pandemic has forced educators, employers and legislators to confront an issue that has always been there, Snyder said.
Schools were closed for two weeks starting Monday, and districts are considering online learning options to teach students via the internet after that. But many districts worry that large portions of their student bodies won’t have access to online assignments.
Richards, for instance, has a 17-year-old daughter who is a senior at Kiski Area High School. If the pandemic restrictions do not end, Alexandra Richards won’t be able to complete schoolwork from home.
Before schools were closed, Kiski Area was one of several districts that sent a survey home inquiring about students’ internet access outside of school. Highlands and Leechburg Area school districts did the same. Apollo-Ridge began printing massive packets of assignments, anticipating the results.
Of the approximate 3,700 Kiski Area students who responded, about 160 reported they did not have internet access. Superintendent Tim Scott said administrators are trying to find a way to serve that group.
“We’re coming together as an administrative team to try to figure out what we can do to maximize the benefit to our community,” said Tim Scott, superintendent of Kiski Area School District. “I mean, we have our tech director saying he’s going to go price out hot spots for Verizon and see what we can do for that.”
Across America, nearly one in five high school students don’t have home internet access, according to Pew Research Center. This isn’t just a matter of continuing education, Scott said. It’s about treating students fairly.
“We can’t be saying we’re providing a virtual educational experience for students that only some students can access,” he said. “That becomes disingenuous.”
Life without the internet was challenging before the pandemic, Richards said.
Her husband has difficulty applying for jobs, she said, because most employers offer only online applications. Her daughter scrambles to get all of her homework done before she leaves school every day. Kiski Area provides high school students with Chromebooks, inexpensive laptop computers. But with no internet access at home, Alexandra Richards can only use it on school property.
Now, the disadvantage is just more potent. If schools remain closed for the remainder of the year, Richards said the only way Alexandra could complete assignments is if she takes her to a friend’s house in New Kensington with Wi-Fi.
But she can’t do that from quarantine.
“It’s extremely stressful,” Richards said. “Everybody assumes that you have the internet and you have access to a computer, and when you don’t, it makes things so difficult.”
Teghan Simonton is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Teghan at 724-226-4680, [email protected] or via Twitter .
Coronavirus | Local | Valley News Dispatch
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