Almost a month into the new school year, many Livingston Parish parents and teachers are frustrated that their children are expected to learn virtually when they do not have a reliable internet connection. School officials say the solution is not as simple as boosting a signal.
Especially in the rural parts of the parish, the infrastructure necessary to even carry an internet connection doesn't exist, even if there were internet service providers available. It’s an issue some families have been battling for years, but one that’s become critical during the coronavirus pandemic, when schooling and working from home is now a necessity.
Jill Shoemaker has two college students living at home. One needed to submit a paper to her professor but, without a strong enough internet signal at their Livingston home, she had to drive to the library at 1 a.m. to connect to the public Wi-Fi system before her deadline.
Farther down the road, Lori Parker has a high school student and a law school student competing for bandwidth on a Verizon hot spot device while her husband struggles with lagging Zoom meetings at work. They often need to stagger their work times to complete all their tasks.
“There’s a lot of (residents) that are hurting right now because they don’t have what they need to be able to educate their kids and perform their working duties and it’s just sad,” Livingston Parish councilman Shane Mack said.
It’s not just Livingston Parish. Communities across America are having internet issues during the pandemic.
There are some areas, like around Albany, where even cell service is spotty.
“You go to Maurepas and just hope you don’t break down in your boat because your cellphone won’t help you,” Mack said. “You think, in today’s world, how is this even possible?”
In a recent Livingston Parish School Board meeting, numerous parents and teachers expressed frustration with the district’s virtual model. Some complaints surrounded the workload being unmanageable, but others were concerned about the kids that don’t have internet access at home — and, as such, appear not to have an alternative way of studying on the days they’re not on campus.
Livingston Parish Public Schools received a $4.4 million grant through the CARES Act that officials said would be used to clean and disinfect campuses, increase the number of computers and laptops available to students and improve student access to internet and Wi-Fi services.
However, district technology director Carlos Williams said this week that the CARES Act funding has run dry and the district doesn’t have a clear view of how many students do not have reliable internet access at home.
Though officials estimated a number of students with internet issues before the virtual school year began, that number has grown because families that thought their connection was reliable are now learning that a device struggles to support an entire day of Zoom classes. That makes it harder to pinpoint how many students don’t have adequate access.
“If I’ve got a kid who doesn’t have good cell coverage, obviously we can’t use that, and we also can’t get a wired connection to that child’s house, so what do we do?” Williams said. “That’s not unique to us, large portions of the state are like that.”
Neighbors in the area near where Jill Shoemaker lives — the Red Oaks area south of Livingston — have been trying to obtain expanded broadband for years. They’ve showed up at council meetings, talked to officials, even reached out to state legislators and internet companies, but say they’ve gotten nowhere.
Shoemaker estimated 65 households in her area are without a connection, with 75 kids trying to complete school work.
“The kids down here have no lines. Nothing is given to us,” she said. “Our biggest thing out here is that we run off hot spots. My husband works from home, two kids jump on the phone and sometimes it glitches in and out, we’re in the middle of testing and my daughter got kicked out of the timed test.”
Livingston Parish council member Randy Delatte — a newly elected member — said he’s received quotes at about $200,000 to run internet cables to the highest-populated areas that are lacking connection, like the Red Oak area. The problem is figuring out who will pay.
He said it’s his belief the parish or the school board could fund the installation through CARES Act money. But both entities say they can’t, and punt to the other.
“We’re thinking in the old ways. If a school bus picks up a child and the kid can’t get on because the bus doesn’t turn around there, they pay for culverts and the parish would do the work, it would be an intergovernmental agreement,” Delatte said. “Yet when it comes to technology we’re not working together. … That’s two government entities that aren’t working together to pool services to get people what they need.”
Parish President Layton Ricks said his grant writer has researched the problem and determined that providing access is not only cost-prohibitive but something that can’t be funded through the CARES Act.
“There’s no way legally that we can do it,” he said.
Williams, the school district’s technology director, said he hasn’t worked with the parish directly but the superintendent’s office has.
The school district is involved in initiatives to improve internet connectivity, but Williams said the issue is about community utility, not just a burden that falls on schools to fix.
“I don’t know of anybody who’s got the funding to improve people’s current access, it’s kind of one of those long-term things to work on,” Williams said.
The school district has worked to provide access points, such as a Wi-Fi connection at central buildings throughout the parish for drive-up access. It has purchased wireless hot spots for schools to distribute. And it is working with state legislators to offer incentives for internet companies to expand services throughout the more rural areas of the parish.
Some residents in those dead spots have used the drive-up facilities as their children try to work from home, but are struggling with maintaining that as a long-term solution.
James Savoy, who lives off Red Oak Road, has a high school student and a college student at home using internet through Verizon hot spots. They get 20 gigabytes per month, but have been draining that easily while they’re all online almost full-time.
“We’ve got 20 acres back here, we moved from Ascension because we love the land and this area and (internet access) is something I just didn’t even think about,” he said. “But when (my kids) watch videos for school it’s lagging all the time now, and it’s aggravating to them because they can’t get through it all in a day.”
Mack, the council member, said another issue is the lack of grants to cover the initial cost of agreement between local governments and cable providers, and the gray area of using taxpayer dollars to propel private businesses without regulation.
“It’s just tough, you know, I think everyone is being patient and trying to do everything within their power to try make life as comfortable as possible but as elected officials I think we need to do everything within our power to enhance the current services so these people can see their kids get a good education and do their jobs at home,” he said.
Ultimately, officials agree there needs to be some interim and long-term projects put in place that would advance Livingston Parish’s connectivity, but the problem is no local officials have any concrete solutions or pathways to get there.
“Even if we go back into Phase 3 or whenever this COVID thing subsides completely, I seriously doubt we’ll ever go back to what we could consider a completely traditional education format,” Williams said. “I think this component and this need to be connected will remain, so it’s going to be a little bit of time and effort to catch up.”