MILTON — With public schools in Pennsylvania switching to an online learning model for the foreseeable future, two superintendents in upper Northumberland County are expressing their concerns about the availability of high-speed internet access in Central Pennsylvania.

Milton Area School District Superintendent Dr. Cathy Keegan recently released a statement highlighting her concerns with internet access.

“Connectivity is critical to the overall social and emotional wellness of our communities and it provides us with the ability to keep our economy moving forward,” Keegan said. “Rural Pennsylvania are suffering from this lack of affordable and dependable high-speed internet.”

Warrior Run School District Superintendent Dr. Alan Hack also noted the lack of high-speed internet access in the area.

“The lack of high-speed affordable internet access in our region certainly has been a challenge as we have implemented our distance learning plans,” he said. “We have offered devices to all families, regardless of access to internet, and opened our networks to our community for students to utilize their devices to access their coursework and complete (the assignments) offline.”

With many families in the region not having dependable, high-speed internet in their homes, Keegan said there are issues with students trying to be educated in their homes.

“Families that do have high-speed internet are now experiencing slowness and other issues from a result of so many people on the internet in their region,” Keegan said. “This should serve as a call for greater bandwidth.”

According to Keegan, the Milton Area School District has a 56% free and reduced lunch rate, and a “considerable percentage of families” that fall into the low- or middle-income ranges.

“These families cannot afford to purchase internet, let alone high-speed internet,” she said. “Additionally, some families are left with no immediate income due to furloughs or suspensions.”

Keegan also noted that a “lack of sufficient wireless coverage” makes it difficult to offer hot spots for students to access to complete their assignments while the school doors are closed.

“The Milton Area School District is doing its very best to further extend WiFi into its school parking lots by purchasing external access points,” Keegan said. “Due to inadequate, inaccessible and unavailable internet resources, some families will have to leave their residences and travel to school parking lots or other public areas to obtain internet access for school and work.”

While the coronavirus pandemic is ongoing, Keegan called for government officials to offer free internet access for all residents.

“Recognize geographic barriers and gabs in service availability,” she said. “Come together and fix it. For once, prioritize rural Pennsylvania so we have equal access like everyone else in Pennsylvania.”

While noting the issues with high-speed internet access, both superintendents also touched on the success and challenges their respective school districts have faced as distance learning has been implemented this week.

“Our first day of distance learning went as well as could have been expected,” Hack said. “There were success and there were challenges. Technology worked great for many of our teachers while others experienced some technical difficulties, but worked through them.”

He spoke with several teachers who said students were excited to be “back with their teachers.”

“Teachers were equally as grateful to reconnect with their students,” Hack said. “The first few days will undoubtedly be overwhelming as everyone establishes a new routine. However, we are confident that we are equipped to ensure that our students continue to be academically engaged and are successful for the duration of the school closure.”

Milton also faced some technical glitches on Monday.

“Initially, we faced some log-on issues with students who had laptop devices,” Keegan said. “We first adjusted our web filter configurations... Then we realized our web filter is undersized to accommodate all 2,250 virtual users authenticating sign-in remotely at the same time.”

The district is working with its vendors to resolve the issue. For the time being, middle school students will be instructed to log in at 9 a.m., with high school students logging in at 9:30.

Overall, Keegan said the first and second days of virtual learning went well.

“Our staff and students enthusiastically connected, embracing the brand new experience,” she said. “They are quite happy to see each other, even if it is virtually. Our students are finding remarkable confidence in the changed environment.”

Keegan also credited staff members for working long hours to make virtual learning possible for students.

“As each new problem arises, we face it with perseverance and resolve,” she said. “We want to thank our students families and community members for their ongoing encouraging support. We will rise above the pandemic and our outcome will be the creation of a positive learning community who supports each other and learns together each and every day.”

In addition to virtual learning, online public meetings are also being planned in both the Milton and Warrior Run school districts.

Keegan said Milton’s April school board meeting will be conducted online.

“As of right now, all future (Warrior Run) board meetings, committee meetings and work sessions will be held virtually,” Hack said. “Agendas and links will be shared with the public ahead of time to allow for participation... The meetings will be recorded for review at a later date.”

Staff writer Kevin Mertz can be reached at 570-742-9671 or email kevin@standard-journal.com.

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