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Phillip Tutor: Anniston students with internet access, and those without

Anniston High laptops

Laptop computers like these acquired by Anniston High School in 2018 are helping older students learn from home during the COVID-19 pandemic. But many younger students aren't as well-equipped to plug in for class.

Here is D. Ray Hill’s dilemma: The pandemic has closed Alabama’s schools, forced teachers to hold online classes and required students — even those in elementary schools — to learn at home, presumably in an orderly fashion. Herding tabbies would be easier.

But Anniston’s superintendent says 20 to 25 percent of students in the city’s schools do not have reliable internet access at home.

Given that it’s 2020, you’d think most of the city’s teenagers would have a cellphone and laptop, if not both. “But that’s just not true,” he said Tuesday.

And while the city’s older students are using system-provided Chromebook laptops, a significant number of students at Anniston’s elementary schools aren’t learning online because they lack access to either a computer, the internet or WiFi. 

Or all three.

“There’s a lot of paper-and-pencil (teaching) going on,” said Becky Brown, a member of the Anniston Board of Education.

Anniston doesn’t own this problem; it’s nationwide, and it’s severe. As many as 12 million U.S. students fall into what the Census Bureau calls the “homework gap” — being unable to complete assignments at home because they have no internet access. Any low-income community in Calhoun County is liable to be home to students who fall into that same gap.

Hill and the school board didn’t need Gov. Kay Ivey to lock down Alabama’s schools to realize they had a problem with internet access. “It’s not ‘new’ news,” school board member Joan Frazier said Tuesday. But this global outbreak of COVID-19 has hand-delivered Anniston’s leaders an example of how vital internet access is to students.

Cities that invest in this access are investing in public education — and their future.

“I take this far past local school boards,” Frazier said. “This is a statewide issue. It’s a governmental issue; everything is done this way. I personally feel that in not too many years everything will be digitally taken care of. It’s not something that is going to go away.”

Eventually, Frazier said, she’d love to see WiFi “hotspots all over the city” that would ameliorate these internet gaps for Anniston’s low-income students. Right now, the school board can’t fund that expense. Whether the city could — or would, or should — may become a campaign issue in the next municipal election.

I feel for Hill. His first year here has seen Anniston’s schools become the scapegoat in a failed deannexation campaign and a novel coronavirus rupture the academic year. And that’s not it, either. He and his staff are already preparing for what may be inevitable if the pandemic doesn’t ease — summer school classes being held online, too, “because we don't know if we are going to be back in the building” by then. 

I hope someone warned him that public education in Anniston is never boring, pandemics notwithstanding.

Hill’s dilemma isn’t without glimmers of hope, though. Ask any superintendent or principal in Calhoun County and they’ll surely praise their faculty (for adjusting on the fly), their students (for making the best of an abysmal situation) and the students’ families and guardians (for understanding — mostly). Hill is no different.

The staff at Golden Springs Elementary has posted Facebook videos that help parents navigate the websites teachers are using in their lessons. 

Teachers at Tenth Street Elementary are using Facebook to share videos specific to certain grades and subjects: a video on the life cycle of a frog for a fifth-grade science class; a tutoring video for fifth-grade readers; even a how-to video that tells students how to access their assignments.

“We’re doing the best we can,” Brown said.

Assignments that can’t be done online — or those given to students without internet access — are handed out in weekly informational packets that parents pick up at school on specific days. Phone calls between teachers and students are frequent.

In his own way, Hill parrots Brown’s belief that Anniston’s schools are adapting to this new paradigm as best they can. It’s a daily evolution, he says, a constant search for tricks that ease this unexpected transition.

If anything, though, Anniston’s superintendent is honest. Brutally, perhaps. He worries that some of Anniston’s youngest learners are at risk, those who thrive on face-to-face instruction, who are visual learners. “I think it is having an effect,” he says. 

As for the summer, the fall, the next school year? Where is this headed?

“I’m being straightforward with you,” he said. “We really don’t know.”

Phillip Tutor — ptutor@annistonstar.com — is a Star columnist. Follow him at Twitter.com/PTutor_Star.

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