NOTE: Story has been updated with comments from state Sen. Janice Bowling, R-Tullahoma.
In Chester County, located about 90 miles east of Memphis, parents of public school students have until Wednesday to decide on virtual versus in-person learning ahead of the district’s August 10 reopening.
But for many families in the county of about 17,000 people, there is no real choice.
“Access to high-speed internet will be the determining factor in the ability to enroll in the virtual school option,” a message from Chester County Schools to parents said.
About half of all Chester County residents lack access to a single internet provider, according to data compiled by the Federal Communications Commission — data that federal officials and advocates for internet accessibility say is likely an undercount of the true number of people who lack access to an internet service provider. The data also does not include individuals who have access but cannot afford services.
“Unfortunately, for us, we can’t depend on distance learning,” Troy Kilzer, II, director of schools, said Monday. “There are large sections of our county that have absolutely no coverage.”
Thus far, families of 225 of the district’s 2,750 students have opted into a distance learning track ahead of this week’s decision deadline, Kilzer said.
For decades, weak broadband services, particularly in rural areas of the state, have impeded economic investment and business growth. In one 2016 survey, 16% of Tennessee rural government leaders said that business had rejected their areas due to a lack of broadband services.
This year’s COVID-19 pandemic has brought into sharp new focus the consequences of that persistent digital divide on children’s education.
“I think we all knew that broadband was important prior to the pandemic, but it has really elevated the fact that communities without broadband are being left behind,” said Crystal Ivey, broadband director for the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development.
Gov. Bill Lee has urged all 147 Tennessee public school districts to physically reopen this fall, saying that in-person learning is the best option for children.
Most districts, however, are offering a virtual learning component — either starting the school year with online learning only or a two-track system allowing parents concerned about their child’s exposure to COVID-19 in schools to learn at home, online.
The limited internet options now available to many of the state’s families and children can be traced back to years of inaction by state lawmakers, subject to strong lobbying pressures by AT&T, Comcast and other internet service providers, to eliminate barriers to high speed internet.
Tennessee is one of 19 states that have imposed significant barriers to internet expansion, according to Jim Baller, co-founder and president of Coalition for Internet Choice, a Washington, DC-based organization that advocates on behalf of local communities to invest in internet services.
In Tennessee’s case, current state law prevents local government-owned electric utilities that offer internet access within their service area to expand beyond those geographical limits.
“Most states do not have laws that create a mechanism to retard local governments from moving forward,” with internet services, Baller said.
For years, Deputy Speaker Janice Bowling, a Republican state senator from Tullahoma, was among a handful of lawmakers who sought to set aside those restrictions through new legislation.
While closing the digital divide in counties across Tennessee may appear to be a no-brainer, even before the pandemic, Bowling said there has been one chief obstacle:
“It’s three letters: AT&T,” she said.
Lobbyists for internet giants have misrepresented her efforts as introducing public sector competition to private sector industry.
Without such restrictions, public utility companies such as Chattanooga’s Electric Power Board — which has laid fiber internet cable accessible to nearly every household in Hamilton County — could expand to neighboring communities.
There are at least 10 municipalities that provide broadband to their utility customers, that are similarly unable to expand beyond their service footprint, Bowling said. Among the measure Bowling is proposing is that any public utility that has provided fiber-to-home internet service to at least 1,000 customers for at least a year be allowed to offer that service anywhere in Tennessee that lacks such services.
“We have one state restrictive (piece of) legislation denying one-sixth of the state or more from living on the wrong side of the digital divide,” she said.
The digital divide among students also extends to families unable to afford internet access, even if service is available in their area.
School districts including Nashville’s, where an estimated 20 percent of families lack access, are distributing hardware as a temporary solution. The district is distributing internet hotspots and computer notebooks to enable students to participate in online learning. The state’s education department is also distributing grants to assist in technology purchases such as hotspots and laptops.
In Chester County, students also have the option to obtain a Chromebook and an internet hotspot, but district officials have warned parents these devices may not prove adequate for children to participate in online learning.
A message from the district says: “Please note that even with a Kajeet hotspot your internet speed may not be high enough for your child to stream tutorials and complete online classwork.”
Correction: An earlier version of this report misstated the lack of availability of internet services in Sequatchie and Hamblen Counties. The Bledsoe Telephone Cooperative makes internet services available to residents of those counties.