Countless parents in East St. Louis say they are relying on minimal resources while struggling to gain internet access to help their children participate in remote learning at area schools during the coronavirus pandemic.
East St. Louis is a largely Black community where nearly 40% of residents live below the federal poverty line, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Melissa Lawson, a single mother of three who lives there while juggling multiple jobs, told the Belleville News-Democrat that she already had to make adjustments to get by before the pandemic after being severely injured in a car accident. She said some of the cutbacks included canceling internet service.
“Sometimes, we would go to a McDonald’s parking lot and use their Wi-Fi, and even with that, you only get so much with the hotspot,” Lawson noted. “Then you run into the problem of what if my laptop or my iPad dies. And I don’t have a nice car, so it doesn’t have the plug-ins to charge your phone and things like that.”
Two of Lawson's children attend Sister Thea Bowman Catholic School, which provided hotspots to students after stay-at-home orders went into effect last spring.
“We found a lot of the students did not have adequate internet access,” said Dan Nickerson, the school’s principal for the past five years, who noted that around 35% of the roughly 100 families in his school had internet access challenges.
East St. Louis and neighboring Washington Park have 200 or less residential fixed internet connections per 1,000 households, the lowest rate in St. Clair County, according to an analysis of Federal Communications Commission data that was updated in 2019 based on census tracts. Primarily white and more upscale communities such as Belleville and O’Fallon have at least 800 residential internet connections per 1,000 households, the figures show.
East St. Louis School District 189 has allotted roughly 2,000 hotspots from AT&T across its 10 schools based on campus enrollment. Students received a Chromebook and can use district-issued Wi-Fi sticks for personal computers.
Tiffany Gholson, director of parent and student support services for the district, said the dearth of internet access can overwhelm households, particularly those coping with poverty, violence, homelessness or substance abuse.
“For both families and students, the challenges of remote learning intensify the trauma they may already be facing due to the COVID pandemic,” Gholson added. “These compounding conditions can create or exacerbate anxiety, insomnia, suicidal ideation, or depression.”