This investigation is a collaboration between ProPublica Illinois and the Chicago Tribune.
To encourage learning while schools are shut down, Illinois education officials have gathered online tools for educators and promoted the hashtag #keeplearning.
Some students in Illinois, however, won’t be able to watch their teacher conduct live science experiments or download a story time video. They don’t have a computer or high-speed internet at home, or a cellphone data plan that would support it.
A Chicago Tribune-ProPublica Illinois analysis found digital inequities across the state, the effects of which will be exacerbated as families are isolated inside their homes during the coronavirus pandemic. In more than 500 of the state’s roughly 3,100 census tracts, there were fewer than 600 quality connections per 1,000 residents, accounting for a significant portion of Illinois geography. At least 54 census tracts had even lower rates of connectivity as of the end of 2017, the analysis showed.
The Federal Communications Commission surveys the nation’s fixed internet service availability by collecting data through internet service providers twice a year. It defines fixed high-speed internet connections as those with adequate bandwidth to upload or download. So if a provider offers service at least that fast for at least one household on a census-defined block, the entire area is considered served. The most recent data about individual connections is from the end of 2017 and was released last year; providers may have improved speeds and access since then.
The Tribune-ProPublica Illinois analysis of FCC data, combined with estimates of households per census tract, showed that in a high-poverty tract of St. Clair County, about 250 miles southwest of Chicago, there were fewer than 200 quality internet connections per 1,000 households. It was among the most underserved downstate areas, according to the analysis.
So, too, was Edgar County, in the central part of the state along the Indiana border. In three of the five census tracts there, there were fewer than 600 broadband connections per 1,000 households. In contrast, the census tracts served by the Maercker School District 60 in DuPage County all show close to one decent connection for every household.
Trico District 176, which straddles pieces of Jackson, Randolph and Perry counties in southwestern Illinois, draws students from seven census tracts. Only two of the tracts have what the FCC considers wide broadband internet coverage. In the rest of the area, fewer than 600 connections per 1,000 households are available in each tract, suggesting that hundreds of households lack basic service, the analysis shows.
Trico Superintendent Larry Lovel called the technology gap “a poverty issue, pure and simple.” He said he filled out a recent Illinois State Board of Education survey that asked for districts’ technology needs, but said he’s previously responded to many surveys like it. He said providing technology to close the gaps should be part of a consistent funding source, not one-time grants.
“I don’t want to sound crass,” he said, “but I don’t see it coming to light that a truck will end up driving up with 500 devices and 500 hot spots for the Trico district.”
Illinois has 852 public school districts, plus special education cooperatives and hundreds of private schools. All were ordered by Gov. J.B. Pritzker closed from March 17 to April 7 to try to slow the spread of COVID-19. Chicago Public Schools have already extended the closure until April 20, and others may as well.
Schools aren’t required to educate students during the closure, but they are encouraged to provide “educational opportunities.” Recent state guidance said districts that can provide virtual learning should do so.
That creates concern for rural districts in areas throughout the state without strong fixed broadband. In southeastern Illinois, the Carmi-White County district enrolls about 1,400 students who live within 240 square miles, much of it rural. Carmi-White County school officials are surveying families this week to find out who has reliable internet service and who doesn’t. Analysis of the FCC and census data shows that the majority of households in the areas served by the district do not have adequate fixed internet connections.
“It is a concern of ours. That’s why we’re hoping that we’re not mandated to do e-learning necessarily. … But hopefully we can provide some hybrid opportunities,” Superintendent Brad Lee said. “There’s some areas that just don’t have very good service. So hopefully in those, we can provide hard copies of curriculum and learning opportunities for our kids.”
When it became clear that schools would likely be affected by virus-related closures, ISBE posted a survey asking superintendents to weigh in on their technology needs — both physical devices and the internet capabilities of students at home. The agency said it would work with the governor’s office and philanthropic community to “ensure that every public school has the technology needed to provide e-learning to all students in the immediate future.”
That survey showed that 433 districts — or 71% of all those that responded — said there were obstacles to teaching students remotely, ISBE spokeswoman Jackie Matthews said.
ISBE followed up with another survey that collected about 600 districts’ responses through March 25 to ask: Are you providing video lessons? Mobile applications? Requiring book reports?
An initial analysis of districts’ answers show that fewer than 10% of districts — 56 of them — are providing education solely online. Another 52 districts, or about 9%, were using paper-and-pencil methods only. And about 82% were trying to teach students using both online and analog methods.
Of the more than 600 respondents, a third said they’re delivering materials to students through bus routes or the mail. And a little more than half said educators had actually led video lessons.
Matthews said the state assembled an advisory group that “will explore what is possible and what is reasonable under these unprecedented circumstances, always recognizing the incredible diversity and varying capacity of Illinois’ 852 school districts.”
Six school districts responded to the survey that they had no plan in place to offer remote learning.
Some districts are finding creative ways to get digital access to students who don’t have it. Near St. Louis, the Belleville Township High School District has repurposed four school buses as Wi-Fi hot spots. The district already owned the buses, which are Wi-Fi-equipped and used for field trips and academic, athletic and band activities.
“We thought, well, rather than have them sit … we’ve identified four parks each day within our boundaries and they sit in the park,” Assistant Superintendent Brian Mentzer said. “People pull up — they can be within about 300 feet of the bus — log in, download the information they need and then they have the opportunity to get their work if they don’t have connectivity at home.”
About two weeks ago, Mentzer said, the district surveyed families about their digital capabilities. Although the area for the most part has strong broadband internet access, not everyone had Wi-Fi or enough devices to go around. The school bus Wi-Fi is strong enough to let several cars at once download schoolwork, he said.
“It worked out great. Someone had a great idea and we made it work,” Mentzer said.
The digital divide, also referred to as the “homework gap,” is wider for teens who live in low-income households — those that earn less than $30,000 a year — with one in five lacking access to a computer or reliable internet, according to analysis by the Pew Research Center that relies on 2015 census data. It’s wider still for black and Hispanic teens from low-income homes, Pew found.
State Superintendent Carmen Ayala, in a letter to superintendents last week, said, “ISBE strongly encourages all school districts to provide learning opportunities to all students during these Act of God Days through whatever means possible.” The state school code says those types of emergency days don’t have to be made up.
Elgin District 46, one of the largest in the state, recently began giving Chromebooks to students from fifth through 12th grade, aided by a surge of new state funding intended to narrow the gap in resources between schools. By August of last school year, all of the district’s 14,000 high school students had a device they could take home. The district has about 26,000 Chromebooks, and more are being shipped this week; it has cost about $9 million so far.
With the need now more immediate, district officials are distributing Chromebooks from the schools to remaining students who don’t have one at home. Students in kindergarten through fourth grade are getting them this week.
“If this virus had struck three years ago, we would not be able to provide any sort of distance learning,” U-46 Superintendent Tony Sanders said. “We should be able to provide a device for every family to make sure their students can learn.”