On the Friday before spring break at Meigs Middle School, special education teacher Matt Coe was busy preparing new lessons for his students now that schools were set to close due to the coronavirus crisis. But while many districts around the country have moved to remote learning platforms like Google Classroom, Coe was using the school’s copy machine to put together printed packets for his students to take home. In this rural Tennessee county of just 12,000 residents, online learning simply isn’t an option for most families.

“A lot of our kids don’t have internet access,” said Coe, who knows students who routinely head to the library or the town’s McDonald’s to get online.

The Federal Communications Commission estimates that about 21 million Americans lack broadband access, with an independent research group indicating the actual number is twice as high. As the coronavirus crisis forces schools across the country to grapple with the challenges of providing remote learning, many schools and districts have had to get creative with low-tech forms of instruction and delivery that don’t require internet connections or digital devices.

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In Arkansas, where 23 percent of households lack internet service, and schools will be shut for the remainder of the school year, the local PBS affiliate is now providing daily television programming tied to the state’s distance learning curriculum. They got the idea from a similar arrangement that the Los Angeles Unified School District made with its own local PBS stations back in mid-March.

“We saw what California was doing,” said Arkansas PBS executive director Courtney Pledger. “We wanted to localize it even more by bringing in actual teachers to address the kids.”

students without internet at home
Courtney Cochran, a high school principal, introduces her co-hosts for Arkansas PBS’s new educational programming: teachers Meghan Ables and Joel Lookadoo. Credit: Photo courtesy Arkansas PBS

The result is five hours of weekday programming for pre-K to eighth grade students, available to any household with a TV, hosted by a roster of Arkansas educators, all former state teachers of the year. Recording remotely from their homes or empty classrooms, the teachers introduce each episode of PBS content by welcoming students to “class,” sharing how excited they are to meet everyone and talking briefly about the upcoming show; a recent lineup included “Peg + Cat,” a math program aimed at elementary-age kids, “Odd Squad,” which focuses on problem-solving and teamwork, and a “Nature” episode on the biomechanics of hummingbirds. At the end of each episode, the teachers came back to talk about some of the lessons and topics explored. Pledger added that the state’s education department approved all of the broadcast content and that the benefit goes beyond academics.