Lessons on the radio, in the parking lot

Sayge Swafford, 5, laughs as she hugs her mother Dawn Swafford with her brother Xander Vega, 10, left, as they wait in line to pick up laptops and lunches being distributed by the Charleroi School District, at the Charleroi Fire Department.

Region’s schools work to teach around holes in the internet

“Good morning, Butler!”

Veteran elementary school teacher Meghan Lucas opens her radio show that way, broadcasting on WISR-AM in the small town of the same name, located about 30 miles north of Pittsburgh.

“Friends, today we are so excited to share this awesome story with you and then we’ll do a fun STEAM activity. Let’s get started!”

From her family’s vacation home in Mercer County, Center Township Elementary School teacher Meghan Lucas reads from a script in recording a lesson that will be broadcast the following day on WISR-AM in Butler.

Ms. Lucas is a Center Township Elementary School teacher-turned-host of a radio show. The show has become her “new” classroom, as the Butler Area School District continues to instruct students after the shuttering of school buildings because of COVID-19, the highly contagious respiratory disease. Schools are getting creative in trying to keep the learning going, with many pushing lessons online, including larger school systems like Pittsburgh and New York.

In rural Pennsylvania, shifting to online learning is not so simple. Many rural areas don’t have internet connections, leaving kids stranded.

“We still have a lot of kids without technology,” Ms. Lucas said.

The educational inequities of the digital divide have become COVID-19’s homework gap, with 9 million children in the U.S. living without internet access at home, according to USAFacts Inc., a nonprofit, nonpartisan data agency in Riverside, California.

That’s particularly true in the less populous parts of the country: Overall, 14% of households with children don’t have a home internet connection, but that rises to 18% in rural areas.

“We have a technology equity issue in this country,” Butler Area School Superintendent Brian White said, adding that about 300 students out of his district’s total enrollment of 6,500 kids don’t have internet access at home. “I think this is one of those telling moments when some school districts can just turn it on and other districts just don’t have the resources.

“We were not a district that was well positioned to go all digital before all this happened.”

At a recent news conference, Gov. Tom Wolf was more direct: “Pennsylvania does not have adequate broadband in a lot of Pennsylvania and that’s just wrong,” he said.

The governor has ordered Pennsylvania school buildings to stay closed through June to help contain the new coronavirus. In Butler and elsewhere, cable companies have donated Wi-Fi hot spots and discounted services for students at a difficult time.

Big connectivity gaps remain. Internet service providers say it doesn’t make sense to serve small towns with few customers. The math doesn’t work, they say.

A shopping plaza in Butler.

Phones and radios

Broadcasting school lessons on community radio taps into older, more broadly accessible technology. Virtually everyone has a radio, and Butler Area elementary, intermediate and secondary teachers have practiced their radio voices to produce weekly shows for students, which WISR stores on its website by date for replays.

Ms. Lucas speaks in a familiar, encouraging tone to her young listeners, sometimes pausing in reading a story to describe an illustration in the book. Intermediate and secondary teachers have also recorded shows with lessons about the Great Depression and other historical events while guidance counselors have reviewed study tips.

Teachers are forced to copy lesson plans that parents must drive to schools to pick up — mailing the papers home when they can’t be picked up — then calling students on the telephone to answer questions.

Left:Top: Georvonna Price, a 10th grade student at Charleroi Area High School, with her mother Stormetta Koroma, gets a laptop from Mark Killinger, assistant principal at Charleroi Area Elementary School, at the Charleroi Fire Department. | Right:Bottom: Ted Swartzlander, a Butler Area School District police officer, loads a van with meals to be delivered to students in the district.

“We’re limited by what we can provide,” said Shawn Ford, superintendent of the rural Purchase Line School District, 17 miles northeast of Indiana and spread out over 145 square miles, where almost 1 in 5 families lives in poverty. “It really makes it hard.”

Online learning enhances education by expanding access to new ideas and information, said Amir Nasr, policy analyst at the Open Technology Institute, a nonprofit think tank in Washington, D.C.

“Those with internet access will be getting a very different level of education than those who do not,” Mr. Nasr said. “It’s a massive problem.”

Because fewer than half of Purchase Line’s 852 students have access to the internet, the district on March 31 began biweekly distribution of lesson packets, with teachers handing them out to parents who drive to district schools, by order of student’s last name to avoid crowding.

Dairy Queen's parking lot

The internet was not Mr. Ford’s first worry when schools closed in March. “It was the human needs first,” he said. “Food: how do we get food out to the kids” in a district where 287 needy students are eligible for free breakfast and lunch?

Purchase Line School District cobbled together a food distribution system using two vans and a retrofitted box truck that make deliveries twice a week to 14 dropoff points in parts of two counties. In one recent week, 437 meals were delivered, with plans to add “power pack” weekend meals for kids. In the meantime, Mr. Ford isn’t dwelling on the region’s digital darkness.

“We can talk about what we don’t have, but how do we overcome and improvise to help our students with what we can do?” he said.

Among the things Purchase Line has been doing is developing senior projects to match students’ postsecondary school plans: balancing a checkbook, applying to colleges, creating a resume.

Left:Top: A stuffed toy is packaged in the lesson plan packet for a special education student, ready to be picked up by a parent at a drive through distribution outside of Brownsville Area Elementary School. | Right:Bottom: Renee Fertal, a paraprofessional at Brownsville Area Elementary School, waves to Garritt Broadwater, 3, and his brother Noah, not pictured, a kindergarten student at the school, after she gave their parents a packet with lesson plans during a drive through distribution outside of the school.

Brownsville Area School District in Fayette County distributes printed education packs to elementary students while reaching out to older students with online instruction.

For Brownsville students with laptops but no way to get online, the local McDonald’s, Dairy Queen and Dollar General are letting students use the stores’ Wi-Fi for homework. The networks easily reach store parking lots where students can log on while sitting in their cars.

The community library also has Wi-Fi access.

About 400 — or one-quarter — of Brownsville Area’s 1,600 students can’t log on to the internet at home, Superintendent Keith Hartbauer said.

It’s not just rural families that have problems getting online: A recent survey of 6,148 homes in the Pittsburgh district found that 41% didn’t have access to an internet device for each child.



Parents as teachers

Even low-tech approaches meet the state’s mandate for “continuity in education” while classrooms are dark. A suburban Pittsburgh-area school has higher expectations for students.

Teachers at Leet Township-based Watson Institute, which operates learning centers for children with cognitive and physical impairments, were left scrambling just like everywhere else, but they had an advantage that’s a given in most urban areas: Most parents had internet access, which teachers had used for years to communicate with parents, said Watson COO Marilyn Hoyson.

Teachers at Watson’s two learning centers for students with extensive cognitive and physical impairments, which have a combined enrollment of about 325 kids, were especially challenged: How would they reach students with lessons? How would therapists help the school’s most cognitively and physically impaired students in a virtual world?

The answers were found in teaching parents to be stand-in teachers, by showing them in videos and online instruction how to help their children advance.

Jessica Swadlo does a school activity with her daughter Madelyn, a 5-year-old student at the Watson Institute, which serves students with special needs, in their home in Crafton Heights.

“They are making it so my child can continue to learn and develop,” said Jessica Swadlo, of Crafton Heights, whose 5½-year-old daughter Madelyn has a genetic disorder that has delayed her development. “This little girl is a fighter.”

During a recent online lesson, Madelyn’s kindergarten teacher read a storybook about an old woman who one by one swallowed a chick, egg, straw and other silly things, while Madelyn and her mom followed along at home, feeding a model of the old woman they had made with each of the things she swallowed in the story, said Ms. Swadlo, who with husband, Alan, works at Calgon Corp.

“Every day, it’s multiple lessons and activities; it’s videos, Zoom meetings,” she said. “We watch their videos and then we get to be her therapists.”

Saying the pledge

Back in Butler, in addition to preparing for her radio show for elementary kids, Ms. Lucas reviewed videos of exercise workouts she assigned to each member of the high school volleyball team, of which she’s the head coach. The drills were designed to keep players in shape for when the shutdown lifts.

She also worries about the upheaval students are feeling because their daily routines have been turned upside down by the spread of a new virus that sometimes kills. Some families are also experiencing job losses, adding to the stress, she said.

Reaching kids during her radio broadcasts is critical, Ms. Lucas said, which means building familiarity and comfort.

Before starting her radio show, Ms. Lucas asks her young listeners to stand and recite the Pledge of Allegiance. She addresses students as “friends.” She said she wants to make class be the best part of the day for her students.

“We are in the same boat here, not just in Western Pennsylvania, but the country,” said Ms. Lucas, the mother of five children. “We’re just going to do the best we can.”

Kris B. Mamula: kmamula@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1699.