The Buckeye Union High School District turned some of its buses into mobile Wi-Fi hotspots. Cox Communications has a program for low-income students to access free internet. And the state is seeking private donations to provide mobile hotspots for more students.
All are seeking solutions to a problem many Arizona students face: lack of access to reliable internet.
As of 2018, only about 82% of Arizona households had broadband internet, which is high-speed internet that’s always available, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
After the governor issued statewide school closures, educational leaders scrambled to make sure students could continue to learn during the coronavirus pandemic.
Some schools relied on technology their students already had, and others found ways to provide devices – laptops, iPads, Chromebooks – to help keep students learning.
But with fall semesters approaching, that technology also creates another hurdle for students who can’t connect.
Although students might not worry about finishing their school work, the school closures created other worries among some educational experts.
Leaders with Expect More Arizona, a nonprofit education advocacy group, said they worry that the move to online classes will result in a widening of the achievement gap, the disparity between academic performance and different groups of students, because of a lack of internet access.
“When we come out of this, we’re going to have a number of students, (through) no fault of their own, who are going to be left further behind because of the widening opportunity gap,” said Christine Thompson, the CEO of Expect More Arizona, “and we’re going to need to figure out how to provide extra services to support students, to make sure we get them caught up with the kids who were able to have those experiences online and, frankly, families that were able to support them and further their education in ways others might not be able to.”
School superintendents in urban areas of the state have estimated that 80% of their students have access to the internet, while only 60% in rural areas have access, according to the Arizona Capitol Times.
And even in Arizona’s largest, most-developed urban areas, broadband access is an issue.
Numerous companies signed the Federal Communications Commission’s Keep American’s Connected pledge, which promises not to terminate contracts if customers can’t pay their bills, to waive any late payment fees and open Wi-Fi hotspots to everyone, including Cox Communications. Cox, one of the largest internet providers in Arizona, also has opened numerous hotspots across the Valley.
School officials look
The Buckeye Union High School District created a list of locations for the mobile hotspot buses that students can connect to at parks and school parking lots.
Avondale Elementary School District, which previously mailed home instruction packets, placed packets in student lockers for pickup because of a high demand for learning materials.
Dysart Unified, Phoenix Union High School, J.O. Combs Unified and other districts are loaning laptops to those most in need.
And many schools tried to spread the word about available resources, which include low-cost plan options, hotspot maps and special offers from service providers.