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88 Counties: Muskingum and Coshocton Counties facing the challenges of learning remotely in remote areas

It's a challenge in a rural area: tackling learning remotely in a district that spans a couple hundred miles, peppered with cellphone dead zones and no internet.

MUSKINGUM COUNTY, Ohio — This content is part of our 88 Counties in 88 Days coverage, which focuses on the current issues Ohioans are facing during a challenging year.

Our RV rolls into Muskingum County, nestled just to the east of the heart of Ohio. It's a sprawling rural area, featuring some rare hills that stick out like mountains when compared to the flat north of the state. 

Muskingum County and nearby Coshocton have school districts that cover large swaths of that rural land. Thousands of students in both counties also share the struggles of remote learning in an already remote area, where cellphone dead spots are common and internet access isn't exactly accessible. 

Here is a tale of two school districts and two superintendents, doing the best they can, where they can.

"My name is Mark Neil, superintendent at Tri-Valley Local Schools here in Muskingum County and part of Coshocton County... Little bit of Licking County." 

Credit: WTOL
Mark Neil is the superintendent of Tri-Valley Local Schools, covering Muskingum County and parts of Coshocton and Licking, too.

"We're about 230 square miles, 3,100 students roughly. It's just a whole other dynamic in terms of trying to educate people in a pandemic. We have students who have told stories about riding their ATV to the top of the hill to be able to send text messages to their friends, or to be able to communicate with their teachers. People that live out that far, when they make the decision to live there they don't care about broadband or they wouldn't live there."

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"That was before this happened. The only thing we've been able to do if they choose to go remote is to boost the internet signal at our elementary building so that they can come to the parking lot and access the internet. They're sitting in the parking lot, yes."

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"When the legislators passed new rules and new legislation -- they're not thinking about this kind of thing. Since Mid-March when all this started, I would say there was a period when I was getting 10 emails a day from people about free hot spots. Which we appreciate that, but hotspots don't do any good if there's no signal. All you have to do is cross that bridge right there and you're in no man's land. There's no cell phone signal."

Credit: WTOL
Credit: WTOL
Ridgewood Local Schools superintendent Mike Masloski stands next to "School in a Box" supplies for students learning remotely.

"This is Mike Masloski of Ridegwood Local Schools. Superintendent. What you have here is for our remote students. It's called School in a Box - it has all the materials necessary for them to learn remotely, it has workbooks, text books."

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"And we really look at internet now as a utility, right? We've driven all over this county, all over this county and all over our district to test these mobile hot spots. You can't get service."

Credit: WTOL

"Not having internet access, they really have no choice. They provide videos or Zoom. Remember, 485 of our students didn't have access. Now, that's not counting kids in town who might not have internet because of affordability. The state and federal government has really fallen short with the rural communities. And it's not a level playing field, there's no equity there."

Credit: WTOL
West Lafayette is home to Ridgewood Local Schools, where 485 students didn't have access to internet due to location or affordability.

"These are rugged people. You know, I have a lot of admiration for the people that live out there, 'cause you know when we get snow and all that - they're not the ones who don't show up for school. They're all here," says Neil, of his students.

"Most of them have planned and made arrangements for living rural in a remote situation but they didn't plan for this. It's going to take some people stepping up and really making some big decisions to fix it."

Credit: WTOL