Access to internet is a critical divide

Colorado Sun, Aug 2020 excerpt

Colorado Department of Education in late March and early April found about 53,000 students across the state didn’t have access to a device and about 66,000 didn’t have reliable internet at home, Rebecca Holmes, CEI’s president and CEO, said during Wednesday’s media briefing.

Black, Latino and low-income families were most significantly affected by the shortage of devices, Holmes said.

One family heads out on foot with their computer in hand after waiting in a line for pick up at Abraham Lincoln High School to obtain computers needed for online learning during the COVID-19 outbreak on April 8, 2020, in Denver. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The need for devices among students has declined as districts tapped into emergency funds, reserves and COVID-19 relief dollars to cover devices for families.

“But now they have ongoing technological repair needs that even our largest districts aren’t really designed to take care of in the fall and all year and that our smallest districts will really struggle to address,” Holmes said.

At the same time, the need for internet connectivity has risen.

“As the economic impacts of this pandemic have gone on,” Holmes said, “families haven’t been able entirely to prioritize the cost of internet access, even when it’s low.”

Some families were able to take advantage of more affordable internet offers from providers like Comcast, whose Internet Essentials program was one resource for DPS families, Cordova said.

In March, Comcast began offering the discounted service for free for 60 days to new families. The service usually costs $9.95 per month and caters to low-income households. Comcast also increased the service’s internet speed to 25 mbps and plans to continue making it free for 60 days to new eligible customers for the rest of 2020. The company is also offering free public Wi-Fi through the end of the year.

But the Internet Essentials program didn’t necessarily appeal to everyone who qualified. Coloradans for the Common Good this spring approached Comcast to ask the internet giant to modify its application, which asked for Social Security numbers even though other forms of identification were acceptable.

That deterred some immigrant families from attempting to enroll in the service. Coloradans for the Common Good — composed of churches, community organizations and teachers’ unions — reached out to lawmakers and Comcast’s corporate leaders pleading for change. After a series of email exchanges and Zoom meetings, Comcast adjusted its application nationwide to better reflect the variety of identification forms accepted. That change took effect in June, said Marilyn Winokur, co-chair of Coloradans for the Common Good.

“We want to get as many, many families that don’t have internet access to have the access that they need in order to participate in remote learning should it happen again,” Winokur said.

Taylor Watkins, a network administrator, wipes down all the laptops and cords before handing them out to students. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Emilio Ramos, a social worker for two DPS elementary schools in southwest Denver, sees the change Comcast made as a huge step toward equity needed in public schools.

Ramos, who works mostly with students who are Hispanic and come from low-income families, said students learning English, in particular, can fall behind in school without reliable access to the internet. Those students often rely on special interventions at school to catch their language skills up to their peers’ levels and are provided extra help with their language development. 

Without a connection to school, he said, they’ll lose out academically.

“Every day they’ll be missing a lesson and getting further and further behind,” Ramos said.

There also are mental health consequences for students who lose their link to school, which can be “like a sanctuary,” he said.

“We’ve got to be able to connect these students with schools so we can also check on their well-being,” Ramos said.

A chronic problem in rural Colorado

Murphy, of Colorado Rural Alliance, hasn’t heard a lot of concern about a lack of devices for students but said there is still “a considerable need” for internet connectivity in rural parts of the state.

Not much progress has been made since the spring, Murphy said, as many rural students continue to struggle to access the internet from their homes. In some parts of Colorado, connections simply aren’t possible or are spotty at best. Other areas of the state work off satellite-based internet service. Either way, students don’t have the bandwidth needed to engage in online learning, Murphy said.

“The connectivity issue creates a real equity issue for our students, and we have to figure out ways to provide an equitable education to kids that don’t have access” if and when districts jump back into remote learning, she said.

Rural districts, like their counterparts in more populated areas, have gotten creative in trying to bridge the digital divide. These efforts include purchasing hotspots, covering reduced-price internet costs for families and — for the coming school year — installing swivel cameras in classrooms so students at home can watch their teachers, whether the parents of those students choose to keep them home or whether schools close, Murphy said.

Many rural districts are also working with the state’s Colorado Empowered Learning program, which supports districts with subsidized online course options, she said.

San Luis Centennial School Principal Kimba Rael sorts work material turned in by a student’s parent in San Luis, Colorado, on April 8, 2020. (John McEvoy, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Centennial Superintendent Toby Melster had an antenna installed on the 200-student district’s K-12 school building, hoping to broadcast its Wi-Fi signal farther out into the parking lot, where families could access the internet. At times, the signal stretched about a quarter of a mile from the school, Melster said.

However, families didn’t use the signal from the school as much as the superintendent expected them to. He’s not certain why but speculates that things like transportation and hectic family dynamics could have gotten in the way.

Melster, who is rolling out a hybrid model for his students and staff this fall, feels more prepared with technology than he did in the spring — in large part thanks to a donation of 200 Chromebooks from The Colorado Trust.

But connectivity still is his district’s highest hurdle. 

“We’re still struggling,” he said.