Dr. Allen Pratt, Executive Director of the National Rural Education Association, discusses four steps local school districts and broadband providers can take together to ensure every child has the internet access they need to succeed.
Transcripts have been lightly edited for clarity and readability.
Stephen Smith: And thanks for tuning in today. I’m your host, Stephen Smith, and I’m delighted to have on Rural Broadband Today podcast Dr. Allen Pratt. He is the executive director of the National Rural Education Association. Thanks for joining us today, Dr. Pratt.
Dr. Allen Pratt: Hey, thanks for having me, and thanks for allowing us to talk about what we feel like is one of the most important areas of reopening schools — broadband connectivity. And also was very important to us actually before COVID because we knew there were some discrepancies and issues where our students didn’t have access all the time.
Stephen Smith: Well, we have certainly seen the pandemic impact lots of different areas of life across America. And one of those that seems to be really rising to the top is how it is impacting our students and our teachers, and broadband is a very important part of that. So that’s really what brings you to the show today. I had noticed a letter that you co-authored in support of some initiatives with Shirley Bloomfield, the CEO of NTCA–The Rural Broadband Association. So we’re going to kind of unpack that letter today. But before we do, we want to give our listeners a little bit of background on you. I know that as executive director, you come to that position at NREA with a lot of background as a teacher, a coach, principal, and assistant superintendent. Kind of walk us through your path of how you got to the NREA.
Dr. Allen Pratt: Well, you know, actually, it’s pretty interesting for my journey. If you went back, this is 25 years in public education technically, and all of them, but one, have been in a rural education environment. You know, I never would have thought 25 years ago that I would be doing the work I’m doing now. I thought I’d just be a teacher and a coach and do my deal. And this has been the most rewarding job I’ve ever had in the sense of working from how we can help rural communities across the country. And in my four years on this job, I’ve traveled to forty-eight states, so I’ve not made it to Alaska and Hawaii. Those are two that we always work towards. But I’ve seen a lot of schools that are amazing and do amazing work from one-room schoolhouses in Montana to the larger rural school districts in Colorado and the Northeast. So it’s very captivating to see the work that goes on daily in our rural schools and communities. And it’s really amazing, the transition we made in March with the COVID and how we transitioned to an online environment and how so many schools did such a great job.
Stephen Smith: Well, for those who aren’t familiar with the NREA, tell us a little bit about that organization. One thing that really stood out to me from your website was that this is the oldest established national organization of its kind, dating back to, what was it 1907?
Dr. Allen Pratt: Yeah, we are actually the oldest education association, rural education association. And really, you know, we have state affiliates. We have forty-two state affiliates, and Alabama does have a state-affiliate. It is the University of West Alabama, and they do our representation across the state of Alabama. We have members in all 50 states and that includes researchers and universities from classroom teachers, school board members, community members, and also, of course, school directors and anyone that basically has a touch or an impact on rural communities that has been involved in our association.
Stephen Smith: Ok, well, this letter that I referenced earlier was written — we’re recording this in the last week of July, so about a week or so ago, it was released. And one thing from that letter I’d like to talk about a minute before we move into what’s going to happen this school year, the school year that ended several weeks ago ended in a very unique way, a very challenging way. And your teachers and educators, in general, had really short notice to adapt to a learning environment where, you know, kids had to go home, teachers had to go home and do online learning, remote learning. Talk about the challenges that created and how those rural educators responded to that.
Dr. Allen Pratt: You know, for our school systems, especially our rural school systems, do a great job of taking care of their schools and their students. And really provide a lot of wraparound services to those students in need, especially feeding programs. So I think the first aspect of it, when we knew we were going to be in a rapid shutdown and a rapid in-home delivery of instruction, was the fact that we wanted to maintain and make sure our students were fed. And I think that the step-up of our cafeteria staff, custodial workers, school board members, director of schools, central office folks, and especially our teachers and principals, went above and beyond to provide those services, continue those services, as we went through this pandemic. You know, you have to realize that a lot of these school systems were not set up with a learning management system that was online — some did, some did not. So they shifted rapidly, and in some cases in a week, to full online instruction and/or some type of remote, synchronous or asynchronous, learning with their students.
Stephen Smith: And now as we move into a fall, there’s a new semester. There’s a lot of uncertainty that we’re hearing from school systems in terms of, what that new school year is going to look like. A lot of them are talking about a hybrid approach. I know locally with our school system, the students have options of either going in person or doing online remote studies. And, of course, that creates really two sets of types of students that the teachers have to manage the workflow from. What are you seeing across the board in rural education?
Dr. Allen Pratt: I think you hit a good point. Every state district that we’re seeing is offering some form of hybrid approach or a staggered start that would allow students to do a blending model of doing online and in-person and some doing total virtual, which will be 100% online. So that’s kind of the new norm. And I know everyone kind of gets tired of hearing that term or that phrase, but that’s kind of what’s going on. We are seeing an uptick in cases, especially in the Southeast, so we’re seeing school districts request waivers from their state departments to move to starting school after Labor Day. I know our local district put it last night, to start after Labor Day. So those things are going to happen. I also think that, you know, I don’t believe, and I’m not trying to predict the future, but I don’t believe we’ll have a mass shutdown of every school system across the state. I think phased in and/or pauses of certain schools, if cases arise or increase. I think we have to kind of look at it that way.
Dr. Allen Pratt: I will tell you locally, for your local school systems in general, people need to have patience because there’s not a right answer. I mean, there are options and they’re going to do the best they can to make those decisions, but they’re not going to be perfect, and they’re going to change sometimes on a daily and hourly way. So you’re looking at situations where districts may roll out plans. And I know districts have rolled out plans across the nation in July, and they’ve already changed those as we head into August. So it’s not going to be perfect. They’re going to do the best they can. But I do think this year that we’re currently experiencing with a presidential election and other things, everything is going to get politicized a little bit more. So school districts have to kind of face, you know, the fact of, “Hey, we’re going to do this. It’s not going to be perfect, but we’re going to offer in-person and virtual. Sometimes it’ll be all virtual. Sometimes it won’t.” So I think those things are going to be at the forefront of every decision and children and staff safety is going to be number one for these districts. And I think that’s where every decision is going to be based on that safety factor.
Stephen Smith: Well, that is a great point that I would just like for us to emphasize here for a moment that the plans that we’re making even now — those local school boards, the principals, and those educators — that even those plans might have to adjust as we move closer to the school start date, and that we could even have plans change after that. I think it’s really important just for us to pause and emphasize here that as a parent and even students and the community in general, there needs to be a call for patience as these educators try to make the best decision for those students in an environment that is very fluid.
Dr. Allen Pratt: Yeah, that’s a good way to put it. I mean, you did a much nicer job than I would have probably, but yeah. It is a — I don’t envy superintendents. I don’t envy school boards and what teachers are going to face. This is going to be the toughest situation and/or workflow through that they’ve ever experienced. And we’re not trained to deal with this. We’re learning a lot on the go. And, you know, I don’t think people begin to understand that, I don’t think we’re going to get back to where we were in a normal situation ever again. I’m not putting the doom and gloom message on. I’m saying that what we’re dealing with and experiencing is going to change education forever. There will be a lot of good. And there’ll be some things that we’ll miss because it’s just not going to be that way anymore.
Stephen Smith: Well, I think whatever the outcome and what things look like a year or two, three years from now, I think we can always put a flag in the ground right here and say that one of the hardest jobs in America — and that’s of a classroom teacher — has just gotten a lot more challenging because of the situation that we’re looking at.
Dr. Allen Pratt: Yeah, I would agree. I don’t mean to be doom and gloom; I’m not trying to be. I just think it’s going to be a difficult situation. But I also see things that are going to come out of this that are going to be very positive. I think just like the letter that we talked about forming partnerships and working together with rural broadband associations and rural broadband providers — you know, that relationship needs to strengthen between schools and rural broadband providers. And I think that relationship is going to build. Also, I think, personally, that the connectivity issue is also an economic development issue. So the more connectivity we have, the better chances we can have more remote working and/or industry coming into our areas that need that connectivity.
Stephen Smith: Absolutely. Having that quality, reliable network at the local level impacts really just all facets of life. And that moves this right into this letter. One of the key barriers that you mentioned in this joint letter is that in order for remote learning to be effective, there has to be that connectivity. And we hear people talk a lot about access. Well, does that student have access? Is there access to a broadband network in that neighborhood, in that community? And you really look at access in two different ways in this letter. So I’d like to get you to unpack that for me.
Dr. Allen Pratt: Well, I think we have to define what broadband or access to the Internet looks like. We have a lot of people that feel like if they have a phone, they have access to broadband or the Internet. That’s not necessarily the case. That’s a cellular network. So, you know, understanding and really educating people on what good connectivity looks like and what the requirements they are going to need to access learning management systems or instruction online at their home is going to be different than using a cell phone. So that’s the first part. I think that’s very important. You know, a lot of our schools are connected to a level that is pretty good. And our last mile/homework gap is the big issue that we’re dealing with. So making sure everyone has access at home, that’s the big challenge.
Stephen Smith: Right. In this letter, you describe really two types of access, and that’s defined as not only the availability of an Internet connection at that particular home, but also whether or not they even have that connection there, what type of connection that is, and can they afford that. And following that, you really layout — you and Shirley Bloomfield in this letter — a good approach for tackling that. You have four steps here that I’d like for us to walk through. It really begins, you know, as you say here, a simple process that’s built upon a dialogue. And so the first one of those being just determining who among the student population actually has access.
Dr. Allen Pratt: Yeah, I think that goes back to the definition. And what we ran into this spring was districts doing surveys reaching out about access or access points, and really looking at what their definition of access would be. And I think that’s number one. I think the districts did a good job of trying to find out. And I think people became aware of what good access or good connection is needed. So I think that you’re right; that’s the first definition or step laid out. I think that’s an important one to really survey and get results from your local community.
Stephen Smith: And then your second step here talks about the local schools working with those local broadband providers. Have you seen instances where that is working in the country and what might be a good model for that?
Dr. Allen Pratt: Yeah, there are cases all over America, especially rural communities, that are working with the rural broadband associations to set up, you know, Wi-Fi, not really hotspots, but Wi-Fi stations. I know in Virginia, there’s a rural district that works with their local rural broadband association to set up the solar-powered Wi-Fi hubs. And they moved them around the community, and I think they rolled out about ten. Students could pull up, download their assignments, and then go home in their car, you know, if they’re high school students. But also parents could drive up and do the same thing. Or drive up near the school building to access the broadband, the Wi-Fi at the school building. So those have been really important. I know a lot of our districts are using the CARES Act money to buy hotspot devices. And what I call devices is actually a little hub or the little device itself. And they’re purchasing those from cellular services and/or their rural providers to allow students to have access at home and they’re controlling those over some form or some type of cloud service that they can lock them down. But open access from, you know, say, eight to eight during the day. So it’s been those stories have been really encouraging. And I think that work is going on. That’s still going to happen this fall because we’re not going to address this and solve this by the time we start school in August or September. So we have to find those fixes or those areas where we can kind of co-exist and work together.
Stephen Smith: Yeah, it’s a big issue to tackle. That’s for sure. And not only the availability as you talk about, but the affordability. Can that family afford the connection? And then do they have a device, if they do. It’s multifaceted, that’s for sure.
Dr. Allen Pratt: And I think districts are doing the device purchasing and loans of devices for their students, which I think that’s good with the CARES Act money. And I know states have set up these state-level contracts for bids or RFPs to make that happen. You know, another important factor is can families afford it? And the affordability of having broadband in the home, and I think those services that can be provided to some type of subsidy from the government, either local or federal, really helps out as well.
Stephen Smith: And you say in this letter that ultimately you believe Congress, the federal government, has a role to play here, and that Congress should fund some type of program that would help subsidize those broadband subscriptions.
Dr. Allen Pratt: Yeah, you know, I think the CARES Act money that was, I guess in May and lent money has been rolled out through districts through their state departments. You know, that is really a starting point. But we know there’s a COVID phase five bill. There are three bills out that are going to be worked on. You’re going to hear that as we move through August and into the fall about how we’re going to do this and what kind of funding is going to be provided. And every one of those plans that are phase five, have some form or fashion of broadband homework gap addressing either from $1.5 billion, that’s going to be just to the districts in the states to $4 billion in the other two plans that would go run through eRate. So those things are kind of what we’re watching at this point. But we are encouraging — you know, federal dollars are much needed. We’re encouraging our districts along with what Shirley Bloomfield’s suggesting as well, that we work together with our associations, and we start that dialogue and that conversation between rural broadband providers and schools and find out how we can work together until we get those funds and or maybe a plan moving forward because we’re helping the local economy and we’re also helping each other.
Stephen Smith: So the NREA also serves as a national voice of rural education, the teachers and the local communities, before Congress as well, right?
Dr. Allen Pratt: Yes, and that’s the thing. We do work with a lobbying group that is a house out of D.C. that does a lot of our work and does a lot of lobbying for us. But we do actually — what we’re doing now on a podcast, what we’re doing on interviews and requests, all that is part of that voice of taking those stories from across the country and sharing with people to understand what we’re dealing with and then how we’re moving forward. Because it’s not all doom and gloom all over the place. It is tough, and it’s not an easy situation right now. But we’re seeing pockets of great things and the success of people working together. And if we can be collaborative and be innovative and change how we do things to make learning better for students and help our local community coming out of this, we’ll be better off going through this. Then coming out and just saying, “we’re in a bad situation. We’re going to deal with it.” But we need to move forward, be progressive, and do what is needed to help our students.
Stephen Smith: I’m going to walk back through quickly the four points here in the letter. And that plan lays out the schools and the local broadband providers working together. (1) Determine who among the student population has access to the Internet and who doesn’t and what that access would look like. (2) The local school works with the local broadband provider. And after they identify those addresses and see which ones are connected or that there’s a connection available, but the customer just isn’t subscribing. (3) Where there is no local provider and the Internet is just not available at that location, the school stepping in to help establish some kind of connection, be it through CARES Act funding or lobbying Congress and try to get those funds available for that purpose. (4) Once that connection is in place, making sure that there’s some type of program for those who cannot afford the cost of the subscription, to be able to access that. Leading ultimately to possibly to Congress funding some kind of program to subsidize that. What risk are we looking at, Dr. Pratt, if as a nation we don’t do this or do something and be very proactive about this? What is the risk?
Dr. Allen Pratt: But I mean, I think you’re looking at a situation where — let’s go big picture. I mean, people connected across our whole nation, connected to high-speed Internet — that they can be in touch with others, do learning and all that — it’s a national [inaudible] for us. So that aspect is important. The other aspect I think we’re looking at is we don’t need a group of students coming through that were not given the same ability to learn as other students because of an issue of connectivity. That needs to be taken off the table, so everyone can be on an equal playing field, and we can educate all children and do what we need to do to help our country. I think that’s important. Coming out of this pandemic, I hope we don’t have this broadband discussion, that it’s an issue, again. I hope we’re just following through and looking at how we’re using it and how we’re being effective in moving forward in educating students.
Stephen Smith: Absolutely. I think that’s everyone’s hope. And certainly we’ve never seen the collective will be any stronger than it is today to solve this rural broadband issue. Not only with the attention, that we were actually seeing a lot of momentum at the national level before the pandemic. But certainly that has heated up tremendously since then. And then at the state level, there are so many states that have implemented programs out there to help those providers get Internet access out to those areas that are very remote and very high cost to build that access to. So I think we’re seeing momentum that we can be encouraged about, don’t you?
Dr. Allen Pratt: Oh, definitely. I think there’s going to be some positives come out of this. And that’s what I have to tell myself, and that’s what I’m seeing from groups. And so we’re excited about what the possibilities could be moving forward and how the collaborative relationships that we’re gaining and starting are going to move us forward as we move into 2021 and put 2020 behind us, I hope.
Stephen Smith: Absolutely. So what do rural educators need to do right now, and how can the NREA help them?
Dr. Allen Pratt: Well, you know, I think number one is being that communication line to parents from the school system and the school district, obviously, and their school to parents to let them know that they’re doing the best they can. Also, feel free to reach out to us at nrea.net, and email me or call me. We’re happy to help. Call your local state affiliate in Alabama — Dr. Jan Miller, University of West Alabama — that provides them input and enables them to provide a voice. And then we’re happy to share any resources and/or do calls or video chats with any group to say, “how can we help you out? How can we move the message forward?” And I think those are going to be key factors. I also think, you know, understanding that we are going to have some tough times with this, and it’s going to be some growing pains. But we’re going to get through it, and we’re going to be stronger as we come through it.
Stephen Smith: Well, that’s a great message. I think it’s something that we certainly need to latch onto. Dr. Pratt, do you have any parting words for us today? Any final message you’d like to share with our listeners across the country?
Dr. Allen Pratt: Well, as far as a rural broadband provider, don’t hesitate to reach out to your school system and your school superintendents to ask them how you can help. And I know in many cases, you already have. But make sure that line of communication is there. I know they’re busy. You’re busy. Everyone’s busy. But take time to reach out. Even if it’s to take time to reach out, “Hey, what’s going on? How can we help?” Or “we’re just checking on you.” And I think those things are going to be key. And we encourage this relationship and we want to see this move forward between our association and, of course, The Rural Broadband Association. Shirley has been great, and we just look forward to helping in any area we can with The Rural Broadband Association.
Stephen Smith: That’s exciting, and I think there’s power in partnerships, and that’s the message that we’re hearing to solve what is really, I think, the greatest challenge that most of us have experienced in our lives. That’s for sure.
Dr. Allen Pratt: You said it well. I appreciate your comments. Thank you.
Stephen Smith: Well, thank you for joining us today. Our guest on Rural Broadband Today has been Dr. Allen Pratt. He is the executive director of the National Rural Education Association. And we thank you for listening today to the show where we take a look at the people and the issues that are shaping the rural broadband story across America. I’m your host, Stephen Smith, and this program is produced by WordSouth — A Content Marketing Company. And be sure to share this podcast with your network as we share the rural broadband story. Thank you for listening.