Board of Education Members Review Student Internet Connectivity Data

Members of the State Board of Education's (SBOE) Performance and Impact Committee reviewed data on Ohio students' Internet connectivity and technology access at their Monday meeting.

Ohio Department of Education (ODE) Director of Research, Evaluation and Advanced Analytics Heather Boughton gave the Data Insights presentation. At previous meetings, Boughton has also shared department data on school enrollment and absenteeism. (See The Hannah Report, 3/8/21.)

As of last week, Boughton said about 20 percent of students are still learning in a hybrid model with the vast majority now having returned to in-person education.

The Internet connectivity data Boughton presented was from a January 2021 survey conducted by ODE and partner agencies. It asked districts to report what percentage of their students do or do not have access to Internet at home as well as the percentage of students with or without access to some form of technology, such as a laptop, desktop, or smartphone. The survey also asked districts to report what percentage of students they didn't have this information for.

Eighty-five percent of traditional public schools responded to the survey, representing about 1.3 million students. Results showed 83 percent of K-12 students had either broadband access or a cellular connection from home. However, Boughton said there was a great deal of variation across counties with rural areas having lower Internet connectivity. Internet connectivity in Ohio counties ranged from as low as 55 percent of students with Internet access to greater than 90 percent.

Boughton said statewide, districts reported that just eight percent of students rely on cellular connections for Internet access; however, that percentage was higher among rural districts (10 percent) and major urban districts (23 percent).

ODE wanted to make the distinction between home-based broadband access and cellular connections, Boughton said, because cellular connections are generally less reliable and slower than broadband.

Patterns were similar when it came to technology access. Overall, 92 percent of K-12 students had access to a laptop, desktop, tablet, or smartphone at home. While only about one percent of students statewide are reliant on a smartphone for technology access, that number is significantly higher in some rural counties, Boughton said.

She noted how much easier accessing school materials online would be for students with access to forms of technology besides a smartphone alone.

Boughton said districts reported that three percent or about 40,000 students do not have Internet access, and about 14 percent of districts covering 182,000 students were not sure if the students have Internet connectivity or not. Boughton stipulated this doesn't mean that no one in the district knows if a student has Internet access or not (teachers working with students may), but it does mean that information is not being collected and shared in a systemic way for the districts to use.

Among districts that were primarily fully remote during fall 2020, major urban districts had the lowest connectivity from home rates (74 percent) and the highest rate of unknown Internet connectivity (26 percent.)

Among those districts that were primarily remote last year, connectivity from home for rural districts was at 88 percent with five percent no connectivity and seven percent unknown. Town districts had the highest at-home connectivity, 95 percent, and two percent no connectivity and three percent unknown; 91 percent of students in suburban districts had Internet connectivity at home with zero percent having no connectivity and seven percent unknown. In urban districts, 93 percent of students had at-home connection and one percent no connectivity and five percent unknown.

Among districts primarily using a five-day, in-person model in fall 2020, rural districts reported the lowest rates of known Internet connectivity, Boughton said.

While Boughton said the department does not yet have student-level data and cannot say, for instance, how many Black students have Internet connectivity, the department found that districts serving large populations of Black, Hispanic and multiracial students reported lower rates of at-home Internet access and higher rate rates unknown Internet connectivity compared to those serving large populations of White students.

Committee Member Jenny Kilgore said she would like to see the data disaggregated by socioeconomic status, saying poverty gives a more accurate indicator of future success than race does.

Board Member Diana Fessler, not on the committee, commented that she senses a "hyper-focus on this home-based connectivity" which suggests "there's very little priority in returning to conventional building-based education."

Boughton said she "respectfully disagrees" with this. Both she and Chris Woolard, senior executive director at ODE's Center for Accountability and Continuous Improvement, discussed the importance of Internet access at home for students to complete schoolwork even when they are attending classes fully in-person.

Fessler responded, saying she understood this, but Internet access has "historically not been at the taxpayer's expense."

Fessler additionally raised issue with what she said were unclear definitions for words like "hybrid," "blended," "home-learning," "remote," and others used to refer to education models.

Story originally published in The Hannah Report on May 10, 2021.  Copyright 2021 Hannah News Service, Inc.