As schools switch to online courses amid COVID-19 concerns, students who lack access to internet, computers suffer

As coronavirus concerns creep across North Carolina, many schools, including in the Triangle, are switching to online classes to contain the spread of the virus.

That effort is creating challenges for students on the wrong side of the digital divide. Twenty-four percent of households across North Carolina do not have access to high-speed internet, according to the American Community Survey.

As of Thursday night, Durham and Orange County Public Schools have canceled classes.

A total of 5.7 percent of households within the Durham County school district do not have computers and 22.7 percent do not have high-speed internet that allows video streaming. In addition, 6.1 percent of households in the Orange County school district do not have computers and 21.1 percent of households do not have high-speed internet that allows video streaming.

"Equity is hugely important to Durham Public Schools so we are looking at ways to do electronic and non-electronic learning while people are away," said Chip Sudderth, a spokesman for Durham Public Schools. "We've got some options that we're developing, that we're working out. There is a digital divide and we've got to be conscious of that."

In Robeson County, over 22% of families don't have computers and over 50% have no access to high-speed internet strong enough for live video learning.

In Cumberland County, there are no computers in 6.8% of homes. Nearly 23% don't have high-speed internet for live video learning.

Though those counties don't rank among the lowest in the state, it still indicates a danger that those students without proper access will be left behind in an online teaching environment.

Interact: Percentage of North Carolina households without high-speed internet access by school district:

The darker regions show areas where more households do not have high-speed internet access.

Shontay Hawkins, a single mother of 3 school-age children in east Raleigh, showed us her family's computer that has seen better days. "I gotta keep the cord plugged in," she said. "It's a lot going on with that laptop."

Hawkins and thousands of other parents now forced to consider what happens if Wake County shuts down schools over coronavirus concerns and turns to online learning as a substitute.

"It would be challenging. It would be very challenging," Hawkins said.

In Wake County, three percent of families have no computer at home; 13.7 percent don't have the high-speed internet necessary for video streaming a live digital classroom.

And at Hawkins' home, with a 7th and 8th grader plus a kindergartner, she wonders how all 3 kids would share the family's one laptop, that in her words, "kind of" works. "Because then you gotta worry about this child might not be done (their classwork), this one might not have started. But they may be able to work together - but how is that?!"

On Thursday, the digital divide was one of State Superintendent Mark Johnson's top-line concerns as the state's Coronavirus Task Force met in Raleigh.

"This will be a disruption as to whether they have enough bandwidth at home for e-learning opportunities," Johnson said.

Hawkins hopes WCPSS decides to keep kids in the classroom. "I personally don't think they need to close down right now. They need to take other precautions and see what they can do first," she said.

"We're helping superintendents and local boards with guidance. But ultimately this will be a decision that each community has to make for themselves," Johnson said.

Friday, local superintendents from across the state are invited to take part in a special webinar hosted by the state superintendent. School leaders from across the country, who've already made these school-closing decisions, are discussing best practices on how to make these difficult calls.
Copyright © 2021 WTVD-TV. All Rights Reserved.