Online Instruction Could Leave Rural Schools, Vulnerable Students Behind

Recently, Gov. Kemp ordered the state’s public schools to close for the remainder of the academic year in response to increased infections of the coronavirus. School district leaders across the state quickly worked to find ways to provide educational services when brick-and-mortar buildings are unavailable. Many schools have opted to offer instruction online.

Online schooling has many advantages, but the lack of availability of high-speed internet leaves many Georgians unable to fully participate in a constitutionally-required free, public education. Upon returning to session, state lawmakers must protect money for public education, especially for schools and students who struggle to access remote instruction.

Reliance on High Speed Internet Would Leave Rural Georgia, Including Black Belt, Behind

According to Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and U.S. Census data compiled by the Georgia Department of Community Affairs, over 330,000 households in Georgia do not have access to broadband internet.[1] By this measure, 8.2 percent of the state has no viable option to take part in online instruction in the home. Counties with smaller school districts have much lower rates of broadband access than their medium- and large-district counterparts.

Georgia has 51 school districts with fewer than 2,000 full-time equivalent students, serving over 57,000 children. On average, 39 percent of the households in these smaller-enrollment districts do not have access to broadband internet.[2] These districts are much more likely to be located in the most rural parts of the state, including the Black Belt, the area where slave labor was concentrated.[3] Many areas of the Black Belt remain predominantly Black, and due to years of policy failure, there are high rates of poverty as well—making online education even further out of reach. For more information on how the state has historically underserved schools in the Black Belt, see Education in Georgia’s Black Belt: Policy Solutions to Help Overcome a History of Exclusion.

Certain Students Left More Vulnerable by Remote Instruction

Public schools are bound by moral and legal requirements to serve every student who enrolls, regardless of race, class, gender, language proficiency and ability. Students like those with disabilities and English language learners are provided additional services in the schoolhouse, as well as state and federal funding to pay for these services. The transition to remote instruction has the potential to harm students who rely on face-to-face instruction more than the general education population. Even as stories have surfaced of communities rushing to offer piecemeal internet access where it may not be easily available, school districts are compelled to reach further for those students for whom computer instruction is not an option due to language and/or ability barriers.

State Funding Must Be Protected in Future Budgets

Of the 51 districts with 2,000 or fewer students, 42 contain schools that receive additional grant funding from the state because of their small size.[4] These sparsity grants are necessary for certain schools that cannot provide an adequate education due to constraints of the formula that dictates school funding. Similarly, exceptional children like those learning English or students with disabilities command more state dollars than general education students so that they may be offered an equitable education.

Future budget debates will be difficult as Georgians experience the economic fallout from the policies required in response to the coronavirus outbreak. Nevertheless, state lawmakers must protect school funding, specifically for those schools and students where remote instruction is most difficult. When students return to the school building the state would do well to provide additional supports that serve the school’s children, not fewer. People-first investments can help communities quickly rebuild after the pandemic, while any cuts to the essential school services would have the effect of pushing certain schools and students behind.

[1] Georgia Department of Community Affairs. (n.d.) Phase 1 unserved Georgia by county. https://broadband.georgia.gov/maps/unserved-georgia-county; “County statistics are based on a fixed, terrestrial broadband definition of 25 Mbps down and 3 Mbps up, and where the broadband service is available to at least ONE consumer (residential and business) in a census block; broadband data is based on June 2017 Federal Communications Commission (FCC) form 477 data.”

[2] GBPI analysis of Georgia Department of Community Affairs data. (n.d.) Phase 1 unserved Georgia by county. https://broadband.georgia.gov/maps/unserved-georgia-county

[3] GBPI analysis of Georgia Department of Community Affairs data. (n.d.) Phase 1 unserved Georgia by county. https://broadband.georgia.gov/maps/unserved-georgia-county; Counties are classified using the Census definitions of Completely Rural and Mostly Rural, versus Mostly Urban.

[4] Georgia Department of Education. (2019). FY20 Sparsity.

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