Rural Tennessee counties working to increase access to high-speed internet ahead of school year

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After being closed since mid-March because of the coronavirus pandemic, school districts across the state will soon decide how to handle reopening.

There are several goals for learning that school districts are considering. The first is returning to an in-person school setting next month. The second is virtual learning at home through online classes.

Access to reliable high-speed internet will play a big part in the decision.

At Wartburg Central High School in Morgan County, every student returning to class Aug. 5 will have a computer connected to high-speed internet. When we first visited this math classroom in 2017, Chromebooks were in the hands of every middle and high school student.

“It makes it a lot easier to do all the school work that we need in class,” student Maggy Oplinger, said.

The present plan is for all Morgan County schools to remain in-person when classes resume next month. Morgan County is economically “at-risk,” according to the Appalachian Regional Commission, but when you look up, you see something different on the poles and wires around this rural area.

Mark Patterson, of Highland Telephone Co-op, pointed to cables that stretch 3,700 miles through Morgan and Scott counties.

“Every child in our area has the availability of fiber to their home,” Patterson said. “So, that gives them the greatest capacity for speed to be able to do school from home if they need to do that this year.”

While there is the ability to deliver broadband, school leaders say their surveys show only half of the children’s homes are connected.

Morgan County School Superintendent David Treece says there are plans for students to complete their lessons if they don’t have a high-speed internet connection at home. They’ll be given a USB flash drive to complete their assignments and Wi-Fi will be provided in school parking lots.

One hundred miles northeast of Morgan County, Sneedville sits in the center of Hancock County.

Like Morgan County, Hancock County is an economically “depressed” county and every student, 900 of them, has a Chromebook. Last December, students in Danita Dotson’s English class were connected to the school’s high-speed internet, upgraded three years ago.

“It’s helped us academically and helped us access the internet,” Preston Hatfield said.

Hancock County is surrounded by mountains. And, in many areas, there’s not a cellular tower in sight.

Michael Belcher is Hancock County’s new director of schools. He says when students return Aug. 3, the present plan is to resume traditional in-class learning.

For students living in areas with no internet connection, Wi-Fi hot spots will be set up in school parking lots. At the Hancock County Public Library, there is high-speed internet available to students who can complete their work there if they don’t have the internet at home.

“We’re just walking and learning as we go,” Hancock County Director of Schools Michael Belcher said.

Hancock County school leaders are also talking with an internet provider in Virginia about connecting parts of the county to high-speed internet temporarily. Those talks are likely to take place over the next few weeks. No decisions have been made yet.

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