Cyber school enrollment is rising as parents make back-to-school decisions, but for some families in northeastern Pennsylvania, remote learning is virtually impossible.
Angela LoPomo, a parent in the East Stroudsburg Area School District, told the school board in July that “out of a 24-hour period, I maybe have fully functioning internet for an hour and we’re pretty much just out of luck at that point and there’s really nothing that I can do for (my daughter).”
LoPomo lives in Cresco, where she can’t access reliable service. No cable line runs to her home; an offer 10 or 15 years ago would have cost $10,000 per house, LoPomo told the Pocono Record.
Gov. Tom Wolf and 10 other governors wrote to President Donald Trump and congressional leaders in June, calling for investment in broadband. Meanwhile, state legislation is percolating in the General Assembly.
“I want to see that happen,” said state Sen. Mario Scavello, R-40. “Especially here in our county.”
According to a separate June news release from the state, “Some 18 million Americans, including nearly a million Pennsylvanians, lack access to broadband internet connectivity.”
And some access is subpar. According to the Center for Rural Pennsylvania, broadband tests in 2018 pegged the median download speed in Monroe County at 8.8048 Mbps, or a bit more than one-third of the 25 Mbps that the Federal Communications Commission defines as broadband.
Other northeastern counties missed the mark too, including Wayne at 6.0546 Mbps, Carbon at 9.6237 and Pike at 10.705.
Access has improved in recent years, thanks in part to efforts like the Monroe Gigabit Project. Still, “there are some dead spots,” Scavello said.
“Mostly it’s distance from existing infrastructure” as well as “natural barriers,” explained Kelly Lewis, president of Lewis Strategic. His firm is part of the AcceleratePA coalition that tries to improve broadband access and cell service. (Trouble spots can be reported to info@LewisStrategic.com.)
“Broadband doesn’t jump rivers,” Lewis said. Add state game lands to the north and west, and a section of the Appalachian Trail to the south, and there’s “not a lot of spillover from any adjacent areas.”
“We’ve been strategic for more than 20 years” about improving broadband, he said. “We’re working on 100% coverage.”
This past spring, LoPomo’s daughter might get three to five minutes in a Zoom class before the internet cut out. When LoPomo visited the grocery store or somewhere with better service, emails from teachers would load on her phone, and she’d respond asking about alternate ways to get her daughter’s work. “Can you send packages home? Can I pick packages up?”
An alternative was never worked out, LoPomo said, and her daughter did complete the year, but with mostly late assignments.
If LoPomo had reliable internet, she would be interested in the school district’s cyber academy. She thinks the district’s proposed cleaning schedule is insufficient, and she doubts that students will stay separated in the cafeteria. LoPomo and her daughter live with her 62-year-old father, and cyber school would cut down on opportunities for becoming infected and passing the disease to him.
Currently, she’s uncertain how to ensure her daughter can complete three days of remote learning each week. East Stroudsburg students will be split into two groups, allowing for smaller classes on the days students do attend in person.
“I would have to say it’s: ‘Do your work when you’re able to,’” LoPomo said.
Her daughter’s nearby friends have unreliable internet too, so she can’t work at their homes. LoPomo’s ideas are to have teachers send more work home, or to bring her daughter to work with her for 12- or 13-hour days.
Pleasant Valley Superintendent Lee Lesisko, whose district is also planning for a combination of in-person and remote learning, wants teachers to send home extra work on the in-person days, benefiting students without good internet as well as those who may not learn best online.
“Learning online is difficult for some people,” he said, adding that he prefers to learn by seeing something demonstrated.
He wants Pleasant Valley to operate on a “flipped classroom” model, in which students, for example, do a reading before class and come prepared to ask questions or complete an activity, rather than listening to a lecture in class.
For families like LoPomo’s, though, a fully cyber option is out of reach for now.
“I know this is a new world” for the East Stroudsburg school board and the district’s employees, LoPomo acknowledged. But she wanted more answers by now.
“As a parent, to not have any idea on how your child is going to pass this year and be able to move forward onto the next, it’s a scary thought.”
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