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Drive along Western North Carolina’s winding, scenic state Highway 9 between Black Mountain and Lake Lure, and you’ll find beautiful mountain landscapes and picturesque views. You’ll also find little to no internet service along parts of the remote road.

For students who live in rural areas like this in North Carolina, getting access to a reliable internet connection can be a challenge. Their struggle is even more pronounced these days as public schools across the state have closed and moved to virtual learning due to the coronavirus pandemic.

School districts are trying to help students in these isolated areas get access to the same online schoolwork that their peers have. Some schools have turned to creative tactics, according to Beverly Emory, deputy superintendent for district support at the N.C. Department of Public Instruction.

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In a YouTube video posted March 30 titled “What Do I Do If I Don’t Have a Computer or Internet Access?,” Emory applauded school systems’ efforts to provide internet access to all students. Some are using school buses as hot spots, she explained. Others are getting support from local businesses that have agreed to make Wi-Fi available in their parking lots.

“We know many, many districts are creating alternative packets and delivering them or having pickup for families,” Emory said. “We know that folks are working hard to get you the support you need to help your children at home.”

Around the state, school districts are trying to find their own solutions to make sure students have access to computers and the internet. Here’s how some school systems have responded:

Buncombe County Schools

Barry Pace is Buncombe County Schools’ director of technology. On a normal school day, he and his team of 18 technicians support about 25,000 students at more than 40 schools.

Now that students are learning from home, his team has to make sure students have access to a computer and the internet. His team also has to support about 4,000 staff members working remotely to teach the students.

“It’s stressful times that we’re in, and everybody is learning,” Pace said.

One bright spot, however, is that Buncombe County Schools already had a 1:1 digital initiative in place that provided a laptop or iPad to every child in the district.

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While getting devices to students has not been an issue, making sure they all have internet access at home has been more challenging. The district already had 700 homework hot spots for students thanks to a 2017 grant from Sprint’s 1 Million Project, but more were needed more when schools closed in mid-March.

Since then, Pace has been able to get 300 additional homework hot spots from internet providers, which are being bombarded with requests.

“There’s a lot of competition, but you just have to keep asking,” Pace said.

The local county government was able to pull together 10 additional hot spots and donate them to the school system, according to Pace. Those 10 hot spots will serve children who live on N.C. 9 between Black Mountain and Lake Lure.

We’re blessed,” Pace said. “I’m very thankful to have the partners that we’ve had.”

Clay County Schools

When schools closed due to the coronavirus, Clay County Schools sent devices home to all students through bus route delivery and parent pickups at the school.

“We had already surveyed our students just prior to the school closure to find out who had internet access, as well as who lacked internet or a cell signal of any kind,” Superintendent Dale Cole said.

Through work with community and business partners, the district was able to procure hot spots and free service for some students who had a cell signal but no Wi-Fi.

For those who had no cell signal or internet at home, Blue Ridge Mountain Electric Membership Corp. installed some access points on several area structures across the county.

“We also repurposed some camera lines in our student parking lot and installed hot spots, allowing students and parents to pull into the parking lot and upload/download data without leaving their vehicles,” Cole said.

For those without access and no ability to get to these hot spots, teachers are providing packets of work for up to two weeks at a time. The school system can pick up and deliver new packets while delivering meals on the buses.

Montgomery County Schools

The district had a number of hot spots it checked out to families who did not have internet access at home.

“All of these units have been checked out,” public information officer Katie Hursey said. “We are in the process of trying to at least double the amount we currently have in order to make additional units available for those in need.”

District leaders also moved some of the wireless access points at schools to make sure families could easily pull up in their car in the parking lot and get access.

“This would allow students to bring their student device to the school and download any resources they need for their work,” Hursey said.

The district also created a wireless connection with no password in case some of the younger students who didn’t take a district device home would have the capability to connect any device they have to access online materials.

Randolph County School System

Randolph school leaders did a districtwide survey to determine who did not have Wi-Fi access, according to public information officer Tim Moody.

They then reached out to those households and shared a list of community providers through which they could request free or discounted Wi-Fi access. The list included:

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Stanly County Schools

Stanly County Schools are part of the 1 Million Project, which provided 74 hot spots and services free to at-risk students, according to Superintendent Jeff James.

“Next year we expand this,” he said.

Spectrum and other cable providers have offered two months of free access. The district also sent K-5 packets home to help parents deliver lessons, and every teacher is available online or by phone at set office hours each day. In addition, teachers, counselors, social workers and other school staff are contacting their students weekly.

“For six-12 students, content was downloaded for those with limited access or available online through our LMS — learning management system,” James said. “After spring break, we intend to offer drive-in resources [and] push out additional lessons for those who do not have access online. K-5 will have drive-by packet drop-off and new material pickup.”

Kelly Hinchcliffe

Kelly Hinchcliffe is a Carolina Public Press contributing writer based in Orange County. Email info@carolinapublicpress.org to contact the Carolina Public Press news team.

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