Endless buffering: Local schools try to solve students’ internet access issues on their own

By Colin Deppen, The Incline; Jeff Stitt, Mon Valley Independent; and Jamie Wiggan, McKees Rocks Gazette 2.0 

Carla Rathway could hear her youngest son’s frustration from the other room. She knew the clamor meant the internet was acting up again and keeping 12-year-old Preston from his school work. It happened all the time. 

“He’s like, ‘Oh my gosh,’ when it’s buffering or locking him out,” Rathway said, adding she also overhears him saying, “‘I hate this internet.’” 

Like scores of Pennsylvania students, Preston, a seventh grader at Belle Vernon Area School District in Westmoreland County, and his brother, 15-year-old tenth-grader Dylan, were in their second month of online learning this October. But the brothers were doing it all without a reliable high-speed internet connection at home, where they live across the county line in Fayette County.

In place of one, Preston and Dylan relied on an ad hoc network of erratic mobile hotspots and visits to relatives in order to complete their assignments. 

Makeshift solutions, like these, exist all around them. 

Troy Pellick, 18, and Alexa Pellick, 14, of Grindstone, work on schoolwork using the internet at the Grindstone Volunteer Fire Department Social Hall on Jan. 4, 2021. (📸: Nate Smallwood)

Elsewhere in Fayette County, public school students are going to emergency facilities such as firehouses and churches to access the internet. And several districts are experimenting with broadcasting classes on TV at an appointed time — instead of having students log online. 

In neighboring Washington County, one school sent out vans with mobile hotspots meant to help extend the area’s Wi-Fi connections. Farther north, districts in Beaver and Butler counties put access points on school buildings so that families can park in the school lots to use the internet. And across the region, small businesses are opening up their internet access to students. 

Internet service providers such as Comcast — one of the largest home providers in the country — say their coverage areas are constantly and naturally expanding. But experts point to the literal race underway to equip young learners in Pennsylvania and say that…