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Lack of Internet Access Creates Disparity Among Public School Students

Ashley Mika Ho, a second-grade teacher at Kanoelani Elementary School, had her students send pictures of themselves at home for a video compilation set to the Bruno Mars song, "Count on Me."

Hawaii’s public school students have been learning remotely since March due to the COVID-19 outbreak. However, some elementary schools are having an easier time than others because so much depends on a student’s access to the internet. 


Four of Kanoelani Elementary School’s second-grade students giggled into the computer screen as their teacher, Ashley Mika Ho, told them to share an item that makes them feel safe.

“My stuffed animal Vanilla,” said one of the girls. “And it makes me feel safe because it’s from my grandma.” 

She raised a worn, off-white bear with a big, black nose to the camera to show her classmates.

“What makes me feel safe during quarantine is these masks my aunty Deborah made,” said the next student. She held up a gallon-sized plastic bag filled with colorful fabric, and picked a purple mask to try on, modeling for her peers.

Like many public school teachers during the COVID-19 outbreak, Ho is teaching her class, that she lovingly calls her “little otters,” through a combination of video meetings and hard copy packets.

During the Webex video-conferencing class, Ho’s young son periodically wandered into the frame, tugging on her shirt as she taught her small group of students. Ho quickly learned that when it comes to distance learning, it is better to split her class into smaller groups.

Ho also made pre-recorded video lessons that almost sound like a children’s television show.

“How many sides does a triangle have?” she asked in the video. Ho paused to give her students watching at home a chance to answer “three.”

Ho felt lucky because the engagement for her class is high. She estimates that about 80% of her students show up for online class.

“Some schools aren't as fortunate as other schools, just the whole topic of equity,” she said. “I'm lucky enough that most of my kids do get on, and do have internet access, and do have a device that they can talk to me on. I know it's not like that for every teacher, and I know that that's frustrating too.”

That’s the reality for Leanna Agcaoili, a second-grade teacher at Fern Elementary in Kalihi.

Agcaoili tries to meet with her students online at least once a week. She created a resource website for parents and passed out learning packets.

However, of her 21 students, only eight can just hop online -- and that was on a good day.

Fern Elementary School principal Glen Miyasato said he’s been able to supply all his students with devices like iPads and laptops, but he estimates that 65% to 80% of them don’t have reliable internet access. 

“I've heard from other teachers at other schools in more affluent areas, and they're actually all following a common schedule, and learning is continuing on,” he said. 

“But for our families, they're just doing their best. But this is just a matter of equity. They just don't have the financial resources for all 100% of our families to have Wi-Fi access.”

Agcaoili explained that she hopes she can continue providing learning opportunities for her students during the summer outside of the official public summer school program.

“The hardest thing so far is just missing being physically there for our students,” she said.

“Anyway that we can help provide that outlet to be able to see their peers and talk story and create that interaction for them, is the best thing that we could do for them at this time.”

The disparity in internet access is why Hawaii Kids Can, a nonprofit education advocacy group, plans to deploy buses with Wi-Fi to areas of high need. 

David Miyashiro, the executive director of Hawaii Kids Can, expects to have its first two Wi-Fi on Wheels pilot sites in Nanakuli and Kona on Hawaii Island running in the coming weeks. 

He explained that the initiative is meant to do more than just provide students Wi-Fi.

“You don't just set up the router and walk away. It's really an opportunity to engage the communities and provide families and students with a set of comprehensive supports,” he said.

“Once they’re there for the Wi-Fi, can we help them get emotional counseling? Or can we help them get meals? There's a lot that we can kind of layer on top.”

Sarah “Milli” Laffin, a teacher at ?Ilima Intermediate School in Ewa Beach, is helping to establish WiFi on Wheels. 

She estimates that about 35% of her students don’t have reliable internet access.

“As we're getting deeper into this jobless crisis, as families are losing income sources, they're choosing to get rid of the internet because it's an expensive bill,” she said. 

“You're looking at if you're going to feed your kids, or are they going to have these other services.” 

Laffin sees WiFi on Wheels as a chance to institute lasting support for students like hers.

“Right now the digital divide is front and center,” she said.

“We can talk about solutions like WiFi on Wheels, so we can get these kids access right now, but understanding in this conversation that this is not a one and done. There's no band aid for this. There's no way to fix it automatically. This is going to need to be a long-term solution.”

While it is not clear how many public school students do not have reliable Wi-Fi access because the DOE has not yet compiled that data. But according to the U.S. Census, about 10% of Hawaii households do not have an internet subscription. 

The DOE will deploy its own mobile learning labs with Wi-Fi connectivity in early June. The labs aim to help students who may have fallen behind for lack of internet access. The communities targeted include Ka’u on Hawaii Island, Hana on Maui, Molokai and Kauai.

Ashley Mizuo
Born and raised on O’ahu, she’s a graduate of ‘Iolani School and has a BA in Journalism and Political Science from Loyola University Chicago and an MA in Public Affairs Reporting from the University of Illinois-Springfield.
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