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Rural Students Hurt By Lack Of Internet Access

MALDEN, WASH. — Chloe Price was looking forward to her senior year of high school. Now she spends her days going through what’s left of her family home. 

Since the Labor Day fire in Malden destroyed it, she and her family spend at least 10 hours a day sifting through hazardous materials and repairing pipelines at their old property. 

When she returns to her temporary home in Rosalia hours later, usually around 7 p.m., she sees the online workload her teachers assigned that day. 

“I usually only do maybe a couple assignments because it just gets so overwhelming,” Price said.

The hotspots provided by her new school in Rosalia often do not provide enough bandwidth for Price and her three younger siblings. Price said she has to use her phone’s data to get work done, and only if time allows it. 

Price and her siblings are not the only ones. Students from rural areas such as Malden have less access to broadband internet access and other academic tools, said John Lupinacci, an associate professor in the Washington State University College of Education and host of radio show “BustED Pencils.

Lupinacci conducts research on inequities in the American public education system and said remote learning made it tougher for rural students. 

Around 57% of schools in the United States are located in rural areas, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics. In Whitman County, around 1 in 4 residents do not have access to broadband internet, according to data from BroadbandNow.

For students in these rural communities, internet is an expensive commodity, Lupinacci said.

“There’s an additional labor of learning,” said Kristin Huggins, an associate professor in the WSU College of Education who researches leadership development in rural schools. “Sometimes computers work, sometimes they don’t.”

Huggins said students in rural areas also miss out on the socialization that education offers. Students in younger grades are hurt the most, she said. 

Lupinacci said as an educator he makes accommodations because he doesn’t assume students have the emotional or technological capacity to attend class. 

“At the very least, [students] are learning with this backdrop of social unrest and environmental danger,” he said.

“This is not the norm. Things feel different at the very least.”

Lupinacci said he allows some students to mail in homework assignments, and he never forces students to turn on their cameras in case they have unstable WiFi connections. 

Malden schools planned for in-person classes, but the fires destroyed 80% of the town, including internet lines, Price said. She said she learns best in-person, and remote learning has made it hard to retain information.

Price said that as a senior with a five-year plan for after graduation, she does not have the luxury of postponing schoolwork or college and financial aid applications. 

“I like to get stuff done on time but every day we’ve been on our property … then I come back to the trailer and I’m like, okay, I should get some work done,” Price said. “But it just makes it a lot harder for me to focus when there’s a million different things going on at once.”

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