Coronavirus school shutdowns threaten to deepen U.S. ‘digital divide’

By Joseph Ax

(Reuters) – Liz Peasley, a special education aide in the rural Grand Coulee Dam School District in Washington State, drives 10 miles from her home on the Colville Indian Reservation just to get a workable cellphone signal.

Now, with schools shut down until the fall because of the coronavirus pandemic, Peasley – who doesn’t own a computer or tablet – is confronting the same dilemma millions of others in the United States are facing: How to ensure kids trapped at home receive some version of an education if they can’t get online.

“I’m super overwhelmed,” said Peasley, who has three kids between the ages of 10 and 13. “I’m a single mom – it’s tough for us on a good day.”

Some 14% of school-age children, or 7 million, live in a home without high-speed internet, many in less populated areas that lack service or in low-income households that cannot afford it, a 2018 Department of Commerce study found.

In many cases, households may rely only on a cellphone, or may share a single device among several children, making it challenging to complete schoolwork even in the best of times.

While the digital divide is not a new phenomenon, the coronavirus outbreak has laid bare the technological inequities that bedevil rural and impoverished school districts, including Grand Coulee, where two-thirds of the approximately 720 students – many Native American – are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch.

Now educators worry those disparities will turn achievement gaps into an “achievement chasm,” in the words of Michele Orner, the superintendent of the rural Octorara Area School District in Pennsylvania.

Some districts have reverted to earlier technologies, with staffers delivering paper packets along with meals for needy families. Some schools have stationed buses transmitting mobile wireless signals in neighborhoods; others have encouraged students to park near the school on the weekend and use the wireless network to download necessary materials.

But officials warn some kids will be left behind no matter what. Those concerns have only deepened as the coronavirus-forced hiatus has grown from weeks to months.

Thirty-seven states have either mandated or recommended that public schools serving more than 40 million students remain closed for the rest of the academic year, according to a running tally by the news publication Education Week.

Some states have already warned their schools may not reopen after summer. Washington State Governor Jay Inslee, for instance, encouraged school officials to start preparing in case the shutdown stretches into the fall.


The U.S. government provides some $4 billion each year to schools and libraries to increase broadband access, but the program does not permit them to use funding to extend offsite access.

“Those students that can’t do online learning are falling further behind,” said John Windhausen, the executive director of the Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband Coalition. “It’s going to cause a real problem, because the skills that students learn (in class) build off of each other.”

The risks are particularly acute for students with special education needs, including those who have individualized instruction plans that may not be suited for distance learning.

Some districts have hesitated to transition fully online out of fear that doing so would expose them to legal liability for failing to provide equitable education to all students. The Northshore School District in Washington State, one of the first in the country to close in early March, launched an online program immediately but put it on hold for two weeks to address equity concerns.

A lack of training or equipment means many rural or low-income districts are also less able to rely on online instruction.

“The degree of being able to move to online learning at a moment’s notice is totally dependent on the wealth of the district,” said Daniel Domenech, the executive director of the national School Superintendents Association. “At best, maybe 40 or 50% of districts are able to do that.”

In Bronxville, the affluent New York City suburb that saw the state’s first major outbreak in March, the school district has many advantages that poorer systems do not: Engaged parents, a student population that has near-universal internet access, and plenty of laptops to distribute to families in need.

“I’m in a fortunate district,” said Schools Superintendent Roy Montesano.

Many others are not so fortunate.

In Pennsylvania’s Octorara district, where students receive a Chromebook laptop starting in seventh grade, Orner, the superintendent, said she concluded that going back to pencil and paper would shortchange her kids.

Around one-quarter of her students lack high-speed Internet access, so the district recently bought 100 iPhones – Orner secured a $9,500 emergency state grant to cover the cost – for students to use as mobile hotspots.

But she acknowledged that the most vulnerable students are also the likeliest to fall behind even further.

“We talk about the summer slide,” she said, referring to the months between school academic years that sometimes causes students to slip backward. “Imagine the summer slide on steroids.”

As school districts grapple with new challenges, they look for solutions wherever they can. Grand Coulee Dam just started to employ some distance learning this week by setting up Google Classroom for those families able to access it and loaning out some Chromebooks, even as it continues to rely on pencil and paper classwork for students without internet.

Those packets, however, have to be carefully curated to ensure kids in poor households have everything they need.

“You want them to measure something, you better put in a ruler,” said Pam Johnson, a ninth-grade Grand Coulee Dam teacher. “You want them to color something, you better throw in a packet of crayons.”

(Reporting by Joseph Ax in New York; Editing by Scott Malone and Aurora Ellis)

Netflix streams some educational films on YouTube for free

(Reuters) – Netflix Inc said on Friday it had made some documentary features and series, including Our Planet and Explained, available on the company’s YouTube channel for free at the request of teachers.

The move comes as the coronavirus outbreak has forced educational institutions to shut down, and confined millions of students to their homes, compelling schools and colleges to tap virtual tools to keep the classes running.

The decision to make some content free on YouTube is a rare exception to Netflix’s marketing strategy, which otherwise charges a monthly subscription fee from users to avail its services.

While the COVID-19 pandemic has driven an internet boom, boosting shares of Netflix, the company faces tightening competition from Apple TV+ and Disney+, which has attracted more than 50 million paid users globally.

“For many years, Netflix has allowed teachers to screen documentaries in their classrooms. However, this isn’t possible with schools closed,” the company said in a blog post, explaining the move.

(Reporting by Munsif Vengattil in Bengaluru; Editing by Aditya Soni)

Heavy rain and widespread power outages hit southeast Texas, Louisiana

Rainfall and flooding for 5-10-19 - 5-11-19 National Weather Service

By Rich McKay

(Reuters) – Hailstones the size of golf balls accompanied by as much as four inches of rain pelted the U.S. Gulf coast from Texas to Louisiana, flooding highways, downing power lines and closing some schools, officials said.

About 150,000 homes and businesses in Texas were without electricity early Friday and another 15,000 customers were in the dark in Louisiana, local power companies said.

“Most of this storm developed right over Houston Thursday evening,” said Patrick Burke, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service’s Weather Prediction Center.

“Some of the rainfall was outlandishly fast,” Burke said. “Several of our reliable rain-spotters reported seeing multiple inches of rain in under an hour. That much water in a short time just accelerates the amount of damage that can happen.”

There were no confirmed reports of tornadoes overnight, but the rain comes atop several days of heavy precipitation. Some southeastern Texas communities received a total of 10 inches of rain since Tuesday, according to AccuWeather meteorologists.

Houston’s 209,000 public school students got the day off as the city’s Independent School District, the state’s largest school system, said it was shutting down its 280 campuses on Friday because of inclement weather.

Police did not have an assessment of damage or injuries early Friday, but the Houston Chronicle reported that parts of the U.S. Interstate 10 highway in the city was closed late Thursday in east Houston, stranding at least 40 motorists.

The Houston Fire Department rescued two people from a submerged car that flipped into a rain-filled ditch late Thursday, the Chronicle and other media reported.

Burke said the worst of the storm had pushed off eastward early Friday.

“The only good news is that the storm didn’t linger,” he said. “But Louisiana, Mississippi, western Alabama and southern Tennessee are all under the gun today.”

Flash flood warnings and flood watches were in effect from east Texas to Knoxville, Tennessee.

Danger persists from additional flooding along the southern Mississippi River and its tributaries, officials said.

More rain is in the forecast for the area this weekend, Burke said.

(Reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta; Additional reporting by Peter Szekely in New York; Editing by Peter Graff and Steve Orlofsky)

Flights canceled as Taiwan battens down for powerful typhoon

A wave breaks on the waterfront next to an excavator, as super typhoon Maria approaches, in Taizhou, Zhejiang province, China, July 10, 2018. REUTERS/Stringer

By Jess Macy Yu

TAIPEI (Reuters) – Taiwan braced for Typhoon Maria on Tuesday, prompting school closures and the cancellations of hundreds of flights amid warnings of landslides and floods on the island.

Maria was expected to approach the northern coast early on Wednesday as it moves in a west-northwesterly direction at 30 kph (19 mph), weather officials said.

Vegetables are sold out at a supermarket, as residents brace themselves for super typhoon Maria in Keelung near Taipei, Taiwan , July 10, 2018. REUTERS/Eason Lam

Vegetables are sold out at a supermarket, as residents brace themselves for super typhoon Maria in Keelung near Taipei, Taiwan , July 10, 2018. REUTERS/Eason Lam

At one point a super typhoon, Taiwan’s Central Weather Bureau has downgraded Maria to a medium-strength storm with wind gusts of up to 209 km per hour (129 mph).

Local governments in most part of northern Taiwan plan to close offices and schools on Wednesday, but financial markets will remain open, authorities announced late on Tuesday.

Troops were deployed in some areas amid fears of landslides and fishermen in the northern city of Keelung tried to protect boats from the storm.

China Airlines and Eva Airways, Taiwan’s two largest carriers, canceled many flights and warned more could be delayed because of the typhoon.


Hong Kong’s flagship carrier, Cathay Pacific Airways, said more than a dozen flights had been canceled.

Taiwan is frequently hit by typhoons during the summer, and stepped up preparations to guard against them after Typhoon Morakot devastated the island in 2009. It killed nearly 700 people, most of them in landslides.

(Reporting by Jess Macy Yu in Taipei and Yimou Lee in Yilan; Additional reporting by Trista Shi and Maggie Liu in HONG KONG; Writing by Anne Marie Roantree; Editing by Andrew Roche)

Commuters in U.S. South face tough trek after deadly storm

Snow cover in the U.S. 1-18-18 - National Weather Service

By Rich McKay

ATLANTA (Reuters) – Commuters in the U.S. South faced frigid temperatures and dangerously slick roads on Thursday after a winter storm, responsible for at least eight deaths, thrashed the region with heavy snow and winds that snapped power lines.

Schools in New Orleans, Charlotte and Atlanta and across the region canceled classes on Thursday as winter weather advisories from the National Weather Service (NWS) remained in effect from eastern Texas to Florida and north into southeast Virginia.

“Motorists are urged to use extreme caution, or avoid travel if possible,” the NWS said in an advisory, warning that freezing temperatures would keep roads icy.

Wind chill advisories were in effect as temperatures will feel like they have fallen below zero Fahrenheit (-18 degrees Celsius) in parts of the Carolinas, Alabama and Virginia.

More than 14,000 households and businesses in North Carolina and Louisiana and in various parts of the South were without power early on Thursday, utility companies said online.

The governors of Georgia, North Carolina and Louisiana declared states of emergency because of severe conditions that made traveling treacherous.

“We cannot stress it enough for everyone to stay off the roads unless you have no choice,” North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper said in a statement, adding the storm had caused 1,600 traffic accidents.

More than 9 inches (23 cm) of snow have fallen in Durham, North Carolina since Monday, with 7 inches (18 cm) or more measured at various locations across southern Virginia, the NWS said.

The storm has caused at least eight deaths.

In Austin, Texas, a vehicle plunged more than 30 feet (9 meters) off a frozen overpass on Tuesday, killing a man in his 40s, Austin-Travis County Emergency Medical Service said on its Twitter feed.

An 82-year-old woman who suffered from dementia was found dead on Wednesday behind her Houston-area home, likely due to exposure to cold, the Harris County Sheriff’s Office said. Another woman died from cold exposure in Memphis, police said on Twitter.

In Georgia, two people were fatally struck by a car that slid on an ice patch near Macon, local media reports said.

A man was killed when he was knocked off an elevated portion of Interstate 10 in New Orleans and an 8-month-old baby died in a car crash in suburban New Orleans, local news reports said.

A woman died in West Virginia in a car crash, local reports said.

(Additional reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee; Editing by Edmund Blair and Bernadette Baum)