Lynn Weaks doesn’t have internet access at home. A smartphone, she said, “was basically all I had.”
Her four children often stayed after school at Ashland Elementary School in St. Louis, which gave them access to tablets to do homework. On the weekends, if they needed to log online to do schoolwork, they’d head to the public library.
That all changed in March when the pandemic forced schools — and libraries — to close.
Weaks’ lack of internet wasn’t unusual within St. Louis Public Schools, where a parent survey found nearly 70% of families lacked high-speed broadband service. The move to online education for K-12 students has proved a much steeper incline for some districts in the region. And the level of participation by students, able or not, is uneven.
One-fifth of the 881,000 public school students across Missouri don’t have good enough internet access to participate in online learning, according to the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
According to the U.S. census, 85% of St. Louis County families have high-speed internet at home — it’s most common in west county communities — compared to 71% of homes in St. Louis. And within the city, there’s a strong north-side divide, with fewer than 60% of north side homes having broadband, according to the University of Missouri Extension.
State officials are trying to accelerate grant programs to increase internet access over the summer, which typically address connecting rural communities. But that will be a slow process.
“I would say we’d probably shave off a couple hundred” of the 192,000 students by the time school resumes in August, Tim Arbeiter, the Department of Economic Development’s director of broadband development, told the State Board of Education on Tuesday.
SLPS and districts across the region have worked to get computers and hot spots out to families. For several weeks in March and April, instead of buses dropping kids off at school, gloved and masked teachers stood in parking lots — handing out computers to families that remained in their cars.
The distribution periods ranged from just a few days in wealthier districts such as Rockwood in far western St. Louis County to nearly six weeks in St. Louis. SLPS worked into early May to track down families and give them devices its foundation spent $100,000 acquiring.
Weaks, who describes herself as the type of parent who nags teachers, started working those contacts quickly after the closure announcement. She tracked down two tablets and an internet hot spot from the district, “but it still wasn’t enough for me, because I have four kids and they only sent two,” she said.
“And three of the kids go on at the same time, so one’s out, and missing out of their lesson for the day.”
Her eldest daughter regularly misses the first 45 minutes of lesson time every morning.
As weeks of online learning drag on, students are logging on to do schoolwork less often. Rather than daily roll call attendance, a new term has entered public education lingo: engagement.
Take, for example, Ritenour, a district in northwest St. Louis County with a diverse student body.
“On a weekly basis, it ranges from a high of 55 hours in a week down to a low of 40 seconds,” said Ritenour Superintendent Chris Kilbride.
At the high end of the engagement spectrum, one elementary school in the more affluent Webster Groves district reported reaching 98% of its students.
Parkway School District has about 80% of students logging on every week, which is about 11 percentage points lower than its in-person attendance figure. Engagement is highest on Mondays, the district said, and wanes by the end of the week.
Parent fatigue and at-home distractions for students could be to blame. Lynn Weaks is doing all she can to keep her kids on pace in school, looking over shoulders or checking in with teachers.
“It’s a little bit hard because when I’m stuck there with all four of them, trying to keep them all on track and not fall behind, it’s a little hard because two of the four have fallen behind,” she said.
She keeps a sharp eye on 7-year-old King, her youngest, who has a learning disability, to make sure he’s on track or to check in with his teacher. But she also has her three girls, who are 8, 11, and 12 years old, to keep on task.
“So I’m trying to hold up the best I can; I have crying days, I cry maybe three or four days out of the week, because it’s just a lot,” she said.
But even for engaged students and dutiful parents, the level of instruction happening online right now doesn’t match up with a normal school day. That worries University City Superintendent Sharonica Hardin-Bartley, who says students who were already below grade level are at risk of being permanently stuck there.
“To think they will be out of school, technically for six months, is daunting, because those delays are going to be even more significant,” Hardin-Bartley said.
University City handed out hundreds of computers for its roughly 2,600 students, nearly all of whom are considered low-income.
“We have closed the digital barrier, we provided Chromebooks, but if you’re a first grader and you don’t have much parental support at home, that Chromebook doesn’t do you much good,” she said.
Weaks is hoping to return to work as a nursing assistant soon. It’ll be longer before her children return to a classroom. Most districts are planning to continue online learning through the summer; SLPS isn’t planning to bring students back into buildings until at least August.
“I can keep it up,” Weaks said. “If this is what I have to do for them to continue their education and graduate, I’m going to do that. As long as this is going on and they can provide us with this hot spot and tablets, I can make it work.”