In a survey conducted this summer by the N.H. Department of Education, 32 percent of parents in Keene, H.H., and several other municipalities, said technical issues disrupt their child's remote instruction at times.
(TNS) — Amanda Bridges struggled to connect with her students last spring. Not emotionally — electronically.
"You'd teach a lesson, and like four kids would only hear half of it," she said. "You'd be calling them on the phone, trying to catch them up on what they missed."
Some of Bridges' students could not get online at all, so she sent them copies of each assignment and then called to review their answers.
Her experience was not unique in the
The digital divide matters: Students without high-speed Internet at home are less likely to plan on attending college and have lower digital proficiency than their better-connected peers, according to
Through a patchwork of responses this year, local school districts, public organizations, private companies and state agencies have expanded broadband in the
But with many districts suspending in-person classes in recent weeks following a number of COVID-19 cases in their schools and amid rising local infection rates, remaining connectivity issues threaten to leave students further behind.
SAU 29 — which covers
Recognizing that many students have limited, if any, Internet connection at home, local school administrators have taken steps since the spring to eliminate or at least blunt those issues.
ConVal — which covers
Similar to a smartphone hotspot, the devices connect to the strongest local cellular network from among Verizon,
"Our district talks a lot about equity ... so we work really hard not to create additional barriers for our families," Schaub said.
ConVal resolved many of the technical and logistical challenges of remote learning in the spring, when it first suspended in-person classes, according to Forrest. That included providing multiple hotspots to families with more than one child if a single network was unable to support simultaneous Zoom calls, she said.
But distributing hotspots has not been a panacea for ConVal, since parts of the largely rural district have no cellular network the devices can turn into Internet connection.
As a result, approximately 10 percent of ConVal's 2,028 students are receiving in-person instruction while their classmates attend classes remotely. The group comprises students "who would potentially not make any progress or regress during remote learning," Forrest said, which includes those dependent on services available only at school, like physical therapy, and others who struggled with the remote format in the spring — in addition to students without reliable Internet at home.
After refocusing its efforts over the summer, Handy said, the district had purchased and distributed 75 Internet hotspots as of Friday.
"Technology in general has been a priority of the district for some time now but the pandemic has compelled us to take a more active role in helping families with potential issues within their homes," he told The Sentinel in an email.
SAU 29 has taken a less centralized approach to Internet-accessibility issues, asking its schools to identify and work with students who are struggling with remote learning, Superintendent
Connectivity issues affect the region beyond the classroom, Malay noted, calling high-speed Internet "almost essential" because it also supports working from home, paying bills and communicating with friends and family.
However, SAU 29 has shied away from providing hotspots to its families over concerns that they would not be distributed equitably.
"We have had that conversation, and I don't know if there's a perfect solution," Malay said.
Instead, it has taken steps to remedy issues that may prevent students from attending virtual classes, such as providing some with free Chromebook laptops. (Families will be charged for any damages or replacement costs.)
'Not a luxury'
School districts are not the only local actors working to bridge the digital divide.
The boys' mother,
That included the $75 monthly charges from their Internet provider, Spectrum, leaving Marquette worried whether Jaidev and Jiroh — who are in 4th and 1st grade, respectively, at
They were, with financial relief from a
"It's a lot of help," Marquette, who is now working an assembly job at
As of Thursday, 112 families were enrolled and receiving the monthly assistance, according to
"I think it's clear that if children don't have access to Internet, they just don't have access to school the way it is now with remote learning," she said. "... It's not a luxury. It's a basic need for students at this point."
Governments and private companies have recognized that need, as well.
Comcast made 1.5 million WiFi hotspots available for free in March and later extended the program through December, though the networks are available only in public locations.
The program, which expires at the end of the month, has spent less than $15 million of those funds despite proceeding with all eligible projects, according to
Still, financial and technical barriers to high-speed Internet pose challenges to
And while about 10 percent of ConVal students still receive in-person instruction due to a lack of broadband at home, among other reasons, Forrest, the assistant superintendent, said that would cease if the rising COVID-19 infection rate triggers the district's highest, or "red," threat level. (Earlier this week, ConVal announced that students who had been attending
"This group of students would be significantly impacted if we were to go into the red," she said.
Bridges worries that would also be the case for many of her students, she said, even though the local school district installed broadband for some families and others may have benefited from the state's Broadband Expansion Program. She hopes the first few months of this school year, when many of her classes were held outside, gave her students a head start.
"If we have to go remote again, we at least have a strong foundation," she said. "But we don't have good Internet for every student ... so it's hard to think about going back to that." (Note: On Friday night, after this article was published, a positive case at
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