Some Chatham students tackle remote learning — but without internet

Posted 9/25/20

Nearly a month into the school year, 7th-grader Addison Culbertson could finally attend his virtual classes consistently. After three weeks of waiting, he’d received a hot spot.

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Some Chatham students tackle remote learning — but without internet

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Nearly a month into the school year, 7th-grader Addison Culbertson could finally attend his virtual classes consistently. After three weeks of waiting, he’d received a hot spot.

Prior to receiving one of the devices — which provide mobile internet access through a cellular signal — his mom, Ashley Culbertson, printed off his assignments while she was at work. Before that, she was picking up the packets at school every two weeks, as she’d done when Chatham County Schools first moved to remote learning due to the coronavirus last spring.

“It’s just really inconvenient to do as a working parent,” Culbertson said, adding that it was frustrating to start a new school year with all the same challenges. They’d been told they’d receive a CCS hot spot, but didn’t know exactly when it would arrive. In the meantime, there was nothing to do but keep up with the paper-only learning packets provided by each school for students without internet access.

“Receiving all of these emails from all of these teachers as requested, following his work, and I’m going back and forth and taking pictures of his work emailing it to them — it’s actually a lot to organize,” she said at the time. “Not that it’s not possible, but it is just a lot to do.”

Now that her son finally has a hot spot — his first official day of online school was Sept. 4, 15 days after the district’s first day of class — things have been much better. The first day, figuring out how to connect his computer to the hot spot was a challenge. Now, the biggest challenge is figuring out a way for her son to keep track of all his assignments and Zoom meetings — after months of only completing paper packets, the transition to online assignments and meetings has been a little overwhelming.

“I’m kind of taking myself out of it because it was stressing us both out,” Culberston said with a laugh. “Just making sure he’s accountable is a little stressful, but I mean, he’s doing it. I think he’s doing a really good job — it’s hard.”

Culbertson and her son are not alone. In Chatham County, increased dependence on internet during the pandemic has underscored a lack of dependable broadband access across the county, particularly due to the district’s decision to start the first nine weeks of classes with remote learning. There have been more than 1,200 hot spot requests, Executive Director for Digital Teaching and Learning Emma Braaten said, though some of those requests are duplicates from the same families.

By the first week of September, 530 devices were distributed throughout the county as part of the district’s first hot spot distribution — the Culbertsons included. Following the completion of the first distribution, Braaten said CCS plans to distribute another round of devices to families still in need.

“We received far more requests than what devices we had available,” she said. “So prioritizing definitely those with financial needs, learning and academic needs, accessibility needs and putting those as top priority as we looked at our first review, and then as we move into our second review with the remaining hot spots — loosening some of those priorities a bit as we know that we’ve tried to meet those top priorities first.”

‘Access is going to be so critical right now’

At a specially called meeting last Thursday, the CCS Board of Education heard updates on COVID-19 and remote learning in the district, including costs related to technology. At that time, CCS had spent nearly $66,000 on hot spot devices — with each device costing $149.99 plus the 6.75% sales tax rate. At an earlier presentation, Braaten told the board that most of those costs were reimbursed or covered through grants and state and federal funding, but the $9,000 of monthly service fees for those devices were not.

The district is also working to set up more than 50 school bus hot spot locations, where students or families would be able to connect to the internet by sitting in range of one such bus. The Wi-Fi devices to be installed in buses cost around $53,000, completely funded by the state. Still, installation and then use of these locations has its own challenges, particularly whenever students return to in-person learning and buses are regularly being used again. The earliest that can happen is after the nine weeks of remote learning expires on Oct. 16. (Chatham’s board was set to meet Wednesday, after press time for this edition, to decide what happens after that point. Check for updates.)

“It is more complicated than what it might seem when you hear about it,” Braaten said.

Chromebook laptop computers are still being distributed throughout the county, which Braaten said is another important piece of ensuring access to students right now.

“I’m really, really proud of the work that our team has done to be able to make that happen across the district,” she said. “We’ve made it a big priority for us because we know that access is going to be so critical right now.”

Still, all the district’s efforts don’t necessarily ease the burden of a lack of internet access for families that still don’t have it.

Before her son got a hot spot, Culbertson understood this frustration well. On Aug. 24, she posted in a Chatham community Facebook page regarding this frustration, writing: “Parents who are still waiting on a hot spot or do not have internet at home, how are your kids doing so far? I feel lost!”

At that time, she’d received multiple calls from her son’s school, Margaret B. Pollard Middle School, saying he was absent — because he wasn’t at any of his class Zooms. Her post received 44 comments: a mixed bag of equally frustrated parents, people commiserating with Culbertson and others offering advice, including sitting in church or school parking lots to connect to their Wi-Fi.

“I’m having the same exact problems,” wrote Michelle Truelove, a parent of students at Moncure and Northwood. “Who wants (to) go sit in (their) car all day for kids to do their work?”

Truelove ended up getting a hot spot Sept. 10, but unfortunately, it wasn’t helping much — she “lives in the boonies with trees all around,” so unfortunately getting good cellular connection is also a challenge.

Braaten acknowledged these challenges, saying hot spots were just a “Band-Aid” for the problem of broadband connectivity in Chatham. Still, for some families, hot spots can make a big difference.

“We’re really trying to help make sure that families can still be engaged and part of that classroom community, even though they’re not able to fully engage in that digital learning environment,” she said. “We’ve been challenged with this tremendous task, and trying to find all of those variables that will help it be successful. So it’s just been really important that we all come together to work toward this common goal — I think hot spots are one of those areas that can really help further and push this along.”

Now that her son has had the hot spot for a few weeks, Culbertson said he thinks it’s easier than doing the paper-only assignments. At first, it was an adjustment to do work for grades — last semester, he wanted to burn all of his completed paper packets in their fire pit when he found out they weren’t being graded.

He’s always been on the honor roll, Culbertson said, but has temporarily had some low grades because of missing assignments. That has improved as he’s gotten used to his Zoom class schedule and where to check for work. There are still times when he gets distracted with remote learning — Culbertson has busted him with his kittens sitting on the Zoom call or playing Minecraft while listening to a science video — but all in all, having a hot spot has made remote learning much smoother.

“Hopefully, you know, next week will be a fresh start to not having any of these issues,” she said. “But they’re doing remote until mid-October so we’ve got another month of this and then after that — we don’t know if they’re gonna go back or not, but I sure hope that they do.”

Reporter Hannah McClellan can be reached at


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