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Poor Internet Access Keeps 36% Of Missouri Students From Learning At Home, Report Shows

A new report says more than 35% of Missouri students don't have adequate internet connectivity for virtual learning.
Sylvia Maria Gross | KCUR
A new report says more than 35% of Missouri students don't have adequate internet connectivity for virtual learning.

Even fewer Missouri students have reliable internet connectivity than previously thought, according to a new report from the nonprofit Common Sense Media.

The group, which makes entertainment and technology recommendations for families, estimates that 36% of Missouri students don’t have adequate internet access for virtual learning.

An earlier Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education survey put that figure at 23%. Both studies found that cost was the biggest barrier to access.

“A lot of companies are offering plans for $50 a month, but you have to be very careful when it comes to how much internet access you’re getting,” said Danny Weiss, a senior policy analyst for Common Sense Media. “Adequate means it’s a high enough speed, and it doesn’t have data caps that are going to get in your way.”

This past spring when COVID-19 shut schools down, districts across the country handed out wireless hotspots so kids could get online. But Weiss said such devices are a stopgap for reliable, wired internet access.

“Speed is a problem with hotspots. The second issue is data caps. A lot of the times they’re given out to a particular person in the household to use, but you have a couple of students in the house that go to different schools, and they all need to be able to connect,” Weiss said.

And the lack of connectivity can further existing inequality among students. Black, Latinx and Indigenous students are less likely than their white peers to have adequate internet access.

Schools are calling this “the COVID slide,” and the effects could be more pronounced than the learning loss that typically occurs over a 10-week summer vacation.

It’s one of the reasons why pediatricians want schools to reopen this fall.

“We know that school closures have had a pretty significant impact on our children – food insecurity, child abuse, trauma, obesity, loneliness and mental illness health issues – and this does not even compass all of the issues,” said Dr. Jennifer Schuster, a pediatric infectious disease expert at Children’s Mercy Hospital. “And there’s a huge impact on the educational component as well.”

Teachers, however, are extremely skeptical of the recommendations Children’s Mercy has put out for schools to reopen in the fall. They say that social distancing is an impractical solution for already overcrowded classrooms, and many are scared that in-person instruction will expose their families to the coronavirus. Many teachers, instead, say they would prefer to continue teaching online until a vaccine is available.

According to Weiss, the senior policy analyst at Common Sense Media, that would require the U.S. to make an immediate, $4 billion investment in internet connectivity.

That money could come from the Moving America Forward Act, House Democrats’ plan to invest in infrastructure and the environment, or another coronavirus relief package for education and child care introduced by Senate Democrats.

Elle Moxley is a reporter with KCUR, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.

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Elle Moxley | KCUR