‘Weak or no signal’: Missouri ranks near bottom in connecting kids to virtual school

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Friends and family describe 13-year-old Trinity Karim as “unstoppable.” The 8th-grader hopes to become a pediatrician and is already designing her own websites.

The only apparent hurdle to Karim’s momentum is a slow internet connection, which the teen has to deal with — a lot.

“It’s very frustrating. I want to pull my hair out,” Karim said. “I get so angry about it when it just cuts out because I can’t do a lot of the things without it.”

Karim’s family uses a free Google Fiber connection for her virtual schoolwork. But the data plan is very low, and the reliability can be spotty.

“Like just the other day, it was raining, so we were on the Zoom meeting and it would cut out, cut back on, cut out,” Karim said. “It was really tough because it would cut out. I couldn’t hear what the teacher was saying.”

Forty miles to the north in Clay County, Adam Gay and his young family cope with the same issue.

“We knew when we moved out here that internet was going to be limited, to say the least,” Gay said.

He said the rights to run Wi-Fi lines into his rural subdivision in Kearney are owned by a company that has no interest in connecting his neighborhood to the grid. His school-aged children are forced to rely on a fairly weak hotspot signal.

“They did a lot of Zoom calls with their teacher, and the teacher coincidentally lives in our neighborhood, and the Zoom calls would drop from their end and from our end, whatever the case was,” Gay said.

Missouri’s inability to link rural and urban communities into reliable, high speed internet service has put the Show-Me State on a bad list. Commmon Sense Media recently put Missouri in the bottom 10 of all states when it comes to navigating the so-called “digital divide.”

“In Missouri, we found 36% of K-12 students, which is about 333,000 kids, lack adequate connectivity to the internet,” Danny Weiss, with Common Sense Media, said.

With the prevalence of virtual schooling during the pandemic, Weiss described internet access as vital a resource as water and electricity. Weiss said he believes the solution is simple: Congress must act.

“We’re asking Congress to provide $4 billion in the next coronavirus package,” he said.

Last week on the Senate floor, Missouri’s U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt urged his colleagues to make high-speed internet for all families a top priority.

“You need to have access to broadband,” Blunt said. “If kids who are learning remotely have the same kind of opportunity as other kids who are learning remotely, you need to have access to broadband. And you need it as soon as you can get it.”

And it’s not as though local school districts aren’t already doing everything in their power.

Melissa Tebbenkamp, the director of instructional technology at Raytown Schools, has spent countless hours helping students get connected. As of this year, the Raytown district can now boast that all but 2% of its students have reliable internet service at home for schoolwork.

“Schools can’t do this all the time,” Tebbenkamp said. “We can’t be a permanent solution, but we definitely can help in the interim until we get a solution in place for all of our students and families.”

But Raytown is one success story in a state surrounded by dozens of other communities failing to keep students and their families wired into virtual schools.

The fear is that somewhere, there’s a future a doctor, like 13-year-old Trinity Karim, who won’t ever see the inside of a medical school because of an unreliable Wi-Fi signal.

“I think Wi-Fi should just grow on trees,” she said, “because everything nowadays, we need Wi-Fi for!”

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