As I splatter-painted the cabinets in my very first classroom, I never dreamed that I’d be distance teaching out of my car during a pandemic for the last three months of my 25th year. While I set up the cute table for the guinea pigs’ cage next to those God-awful tacky cabinets, I had no idea that one day I’d have a pet cage riding shotgun in my Terrain so Marshmallow, the school hamster, could make his appearance at a Zoom meeting or two. We hadn’t even dreamed of Zoom in the mid-90’s anyway. When I was stapling up those first apple-framed bulletin boards, there was no way I could have imagined I’d be making a cell phone support out of an empty Diet Coke can and a flip flop for said Zoom meetings.
This was my life while I was distance teaching with crappy Internet this spring. Here are ten thoughts on what happened to me while everyone else was streaming Netflix.
The Crappy Internet
My husband and I live in the country with two of our four kids over three miles from any cell phone tower. No, the other two children didn’t run away to find better Internet, they just grew up and got married. Anyway, we have few Internet providers in our county, and the only service they offer us is a hotspot with a data plan. Thus, we pay over $300 per month for our phones and “unlimited” data that gets slowed down after we use 15 GB. This means that we are the last remaining four people who don’t know why the guy with the mullet is so mad at Carole Baskin.
Distance Teaching By a Window
That said, we have learned to squeeze every little bit of our Wi-Fi signal by putting our hotspot or our phones in the front windows of our house. I had my very first Zoom call right in front of my bedroom window where my dog hangs out. I set up my work area in my beagle’s bed and squirrel watch station. The hound was less than impressed.
I found that if I worked between the hours of 9 p.m. and 9 a.m., that I could get enough of a Wi-Fi signal to create some cool Google Slides and Forms activities. This meant that I could crash in the recliner with my phone in the window as a hotspot and create away. The dog’s bed was getting a little crowded. Who needs sleep anyway?
Just Give It Up
By early April, I had given our Wi-Fi device to my kids upstairs to do their schoolwork and Facetime their friends and family. Through all of this, Facetime with friends seemed to work as long as the hotspot was in the upstairs window. Since video visits kept everyone happy, I eventually got too tired of questioning why the kids could play Minecraft with friends when Google Classroom wouldn’t load. To be honest, Google wouldn’t load for me either with that device, so I was glad to hand it over.
Take It on the Road
Since I gave up the Wi-Fi device, I used my phone as a hotspot. For the first few days, I could take my phone up the driveway, sit on a beach towel in the shade of our trees, and have my Zoom meetings. It beat the dog bed, and the recliner was getting a little lumpy. Sadly, the Internet got smart to what I was trying to do and cut my signal quicker than the toilet paper supply chain. I then hopped in my car and headed to the old store up the road. With my flip flop phone holder, I thought I’d figured out what to do. By mid-April, that signal wouldn’t work either.
Defeated by the Internet, I loaded up the kids, all my stuff, and occasionally, the hamster, and headed to the closest school parking lot. I pulled up to the door, so we could all use the county Wi-Fi signal.
Blinded by the Light
Distance teaching in the car proved interesting. Since I couldn’t see my screens in the bright sunlight, I once tried to hang a sweatshirt inside the car window to block the glare. The kids noted that we looked sketchy enough sitting in a random school parking lot for no apparent reason without me trying to cover us up with my clothes. A storm was coming anyway, so I took the sweatshirt down as soon as the clouds covered the sun. The car shook in the wind and rain, but we could all see our screens. We worked productively there another hour until someone had to pee.
Take the Distance Teaching Wi-Fi Tour
County government buildings and local businesses have offered Wi-Fi hotspots throughout the shutdown, and the kids and I toured all of them. Some had better signals than others. We blended better in other parking lots—meaning my kids thought we looked upstanding like the other poor Internet-less souls sitting there trying to get a signal. We even found Wi-Fi in a country store parking lot. Sadly the signal was too weak for us to use, but I scored four rolls of toilet paper and a roll of paper towels inside, so it was all good.
Just Cross Your Legs
During this shut down, I had to finish a thirty hour course I started on March 11. Since I only got in one day of in-person training, I had to do the bulk of it virtually in daily three-hour Zoom meetings with one ten minute bathroom break.
In the mornings, the kids and I would go to the school parking lot for a couple of hours to get our work done in the car. In the afternoon, I would then go to the parking lot for my Zoom. Principals at my school and the one nearest my house told me I could do my class in their buildings. The problem was, their hours didn’t always correspond with the class hours. They offered to stay to accommodate me, but who wants to ask for help from people who are already doing above and beyond for kids and teachers? Additionally, I had three huge tubs of materials I had to use in my class. I just didn’t feel like toting all that gear in and out, so it was easier to just stay in my car.
Until it wasn’t. On days when school buildings were open, I could mask up and go in to the bathroom. When buildings were closed, I had a different situation entirely. Trying to pee in a cup in my car was just awkward, and heading to the woods on school property would have really looked sketchy on security cameras. We got a lucky break in mid-May, though.
Leave the State
We have a trailer in a beachfront town in another state that had been closed to property owners and visitors during the Covid Crisis. The community opened back up in early May so we were able to get our pass and head down. It’s sadly ironic that a remote strip of sand in the Atlantic Ocean has better Internet than a mainland country town.
I nearly cried when I did my first Zoom class in an actual building. The instructor had called me out for being in my car earlier. She had wondered if my family was really loud, causing me to want to escape. I think she forgot who I was when she saw me with my seagull picture as a background. We loved having Internet so much that we stayed through two tropical storms. Winds shook our trailer so hard that the toilet water sloshed a little. A house near us fell in the ocean, but it was all good. Google Classroom and Zoom still worked.
Distance Teaching is Over. Now What?
No matter what decisions are made about in-person versus distance teaching this fall, Internet access still remains a top issue. My experiences with connectivity were mildly inconvenient compared to those of some families. I still had my job and a steady income which meant I could afford to put gas in my car to drive the 14 miles to the nearest Wi-Fi hotspot. I had a reliable vehicle. My kids had their own devices, and I knew how to navigate their virtual classrooms. I had the option to leave the state when I just couldn’t deal with my car office any more.
Other families were not as fortunate. That’s why it’s so important to close the virtual divide. Counties will get CARES Act money to assist schools and families with distance learning. With school budgets cut to the bone, county governments need to step in. By working creatively with network providers, I believe communities can level this playing field so that all students can have access to their teachers, their learning platforms, and their peers to get the education they’re entitled to. If local governments want to do more than pay lip service to social justice issues, let’s start with equal connectivity for distance teaching and learning. By working to build the appropriate infrastructure for community Internet, our counties will then do their part to help educators create learners ready to take on the ever changing technical world.