WESTOVER — State officials met with administrators, staff and students of the Harmony Area School District Friday to hear how a lack of high-speed internet service in communities composing the school district affects students.
The Governor’s Office of Broadband Initiatives Acting Executive Director Sheri Collins and the state Department of Education’s Deputy Secretary Glenn Miller were told in the more developed areas of the district, spanning both Clearfield and Indiana counties, there is internet service. Other residents living outside of towns have to opt for more expensive but slower satellite internet service, creating internet hotspots with their cellphones and some have no service at all.
Principal Doug Martz, who was the district’s internet technology supervisor prior to being named principal, said the school district is one of the smaller districts in the state in regards to student population with approximately 300 students in pre-kindergarten through 12. However, it is one of the larger districts in make-up, encompassing 86 square miles. The district has as no public libraries within its boundaries and few businesses offer WiFi service.
“Our internet at the school has an adequate signal that is beamed in wirelessing through a tower,” Martz said.
Martz went on to say while the district has maintained upgrades to its system and service, the areas where students reside have not kept up.
“That has affected our ability to do homework projects within 2019 means. It is very limited for some students. Unfortunately in this district we have the haves and the have-nots depending on where your home is located in the district. When they leave school for the day, some students can continue to learn (using their home internet connections) while others are dead in the water once they leave the building,” Martz said.
Martz said a lack of reliable speedy internet service within the school district restricts students from being able to participate in state programs such as flexible instruction days and Career Ready PA. Students are unable to watch curriculum tutorial videos online or even fill out a financial aid application for post-secondary education, those participating said.
“The district certainly can’t do an A+ job at student career readiness until broadband is better for our students,” Martz explained, adding broadband upgrades would not only benefit the district’s students, it would help grow businesses and perhaps encourage people to move to the area if they could still do their job using high-speed internet connections.
Martz said he asked a representation of the school district to meet with the two to offer information on their personal experience with internet services within the school district. Some of them said while their homes do have an internet connection they are not fast enough to allow them to watch videos or use real-time collaboration and document authoring or editing tools.
Sophomore Macy Hughes told Collins and Miller that she “can’t use Google Docs and I can’t do projects cooperating with other students. I am glad to have internet and what we have is improved from the dial-up we had before.”
District Business Manager Brad Brothers reported the district has several towns “where the internet is pretty good. In other areas residents only option is satellite internet service. It’s not fast. I understand there is expense in running cables to rural areas and providers are reluctant to do this but it is the center of the school district that is the most isolated.”
Instructor Jason Romagna told Collins and Miller, as a teacher, it is difficult to assign projects for students to work on outside the classroom. He said when he graduated from Harmony a number of years ago, his family had dial-up internet service.
“It’s amazing to me that some of our students are still using dial-up all these years later,” Romagna explained.
Collins said meetings with those directly affected by a lack of reliable high-speed broadband is helping state officials find solutions for the problems.
“The digital divide is very real,” she said.
Miller said a study has been commissioned to examine the impact of a rural community on education. “I find when there is commission that most often it leads to action in the general assembly. I am excited about that potential for a one-year study. This is a super-complicated topic but it is my hope that what comes out of it are some common-sense solutions and a real investment of dollars.”
Both touted Gov. Tom Wolf’s proposal Restore Pennsylvania as a way to breach the broadband gap. Resolve PA is a state-wide plan to aggressively address the commonwealth’s vital infrastructure needs by charging a severance fee on natural gas drilling. The $4.5 billion bipartisan funding proposal will completely bridge the digital divide in every community in Pennsylvania. Funding will be available to support the installation of infrastructure to bring high speed internet to every corner of the commonwealth, according to information provided by Gov. Wolf’s office.