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Two Americas: How the digital divide impacts rural schools

Richmond High School 2021.jpg
Posted at 3:59 PM, Oct 07, 2021
and last updated 2021-10-07 23:59:39-04

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — All roads in Ray County, Missouri, seem to lead to Richmond. When you’re in the county seat, take Main Street one block from the downtown square, and you’ll see advertising for what’s on everyone’s mind: “always faster internet.”

The Federal Communications Commission ranks Ray County as having the most underserved access to broadband internet in the immediate Kansas City metropolitan area.

Having a fast internet connection is critical for the Richmond R-XVI School District which bought all 1,400 students a tablet or laptop they can take home beginning in August 2020.

“You can buy devices all day long, but if you don’t give them a way to get to the internet, they’re just paperweights,” explained Brain Long, the district’s technology director.

He explained a broadband internet connection enters the high school. Underground fiber lines take that internet access to the district’s three other campuses so students and staff can all access high-speed internet at their location.

“It’s fast and I can get all the work done I need to,” explained Zane Renfro, a senior at Richmond High School, who is also the student body president.

It’s at home where Renfro’s classmates encounter trouble.

“I know people personally who don’t have internet at home and I’m sure there’s a bunch more who I don’t know of who don’t have it,” Renfro said, adding that his family only got a reliable high-speed, home internet connection within the past two years.

The state believes 23% of Missouri’s students don’t have access to broadband internet at home.

In Richmond, the district partnered with its internet provider to use the tower on top of the high school as a way to send WiFi to more homes. But it is a line-of-sight service, meaning users must be able to see the tower to use the service, and most of the city cannot see the tower.

Cell service in the hills surrounding Richmond is too spotty to make mobile hot spots a reliable alternative.

Renfro’s classmates who don’t have internet at home have to go to the public library, which is one mile from the high school, or stay late at school where the internet is strong.

“That’s one thing that frustrates me most is we’re a half an hour from Kansas City, why is it that we still have a tough time getting the technology,” asked Richmond R-XVI Superintendent Greg Darling.

Just before the start of this school year, Gov. Mike Parson announced a $400 million plan to build more infrastructure to connect Missourians to broadband internet. It’ll be up to legislators to make the plan a reality when they meet in January.

“I hope legislation and people in the future will think about it like the paved roads to get to your house, the same way with technology. We want to educate these kids,” Darling said, admitting roughly 70% of all schoolwork requires some type of technology.

As education merges with technology, the internet is the sometimes bumpy road to a degree.

The Missouri Department of Economic Development has several programs in the works to help expand broadband internet access. More information is available on the department's website.

Two Americas is part of a KSHB and Scripps signature issue to help introduce our community to the America you know and the America you might not know. Our role as the media is to share the news of the day, but we also seek to give a voice to people we don't hear from often.

Of course, there are many parts that make up our community, so we’re not just showing you two and we’re not pitting two sides against each other. Instead, we’re hoping to highlight solutions and showcase different perspectives to help us all better understand our area's culture, our area's past, and why our community feels the way it does today.