Schools Start In Four Weeks. The State Is Scrambling To Set Up Broadband For Students
When Vermont students start the next school year in four weeks, many won’t have full access to the internet they need for remote learning.
The COVID crisis has shined a bright light on the state's big broadband inequities as school officials and parents weigh the options of online and in-person classes.
Andre Souligny is one of many parents who’d like to keep his kids at home this fall. But he doesn’t think it’s possible with the extremely slow internet connection at their home in rural Roxbury.
“If we had really good internet, it would make a big difference in sort of the possibilities and the stress level,” he said. “You know, we would probably immediately choose to do remote learning, because it would be safer, safer than going to school.”
Souligny’s family tested it out this spring. But with two children needing to do their school work online, his partner at home working remotely, a third child home from college – all tried to use an internet connection that’s about 25 times slower than the federal definition of broadband.
Like he said, it got stressful.
“It causes tension in our family. We’ve always got to be navigating, like 'Who’s online, who’s offline, turn off your stuff,'" he said. “I mean, I’m just concerned that we can’t probably manage a whole school year remotely. Based on our experience, over the internet, it’s next to impossible.”
"I'm just concerned that we can't probably manage a whole school year remotely. Based on our experience, over the internet, it's next to impossible." — Andre Souligny, Roxbury parent
Their situation is not unique. According to the state's Department of Public Service, about 70,000 addresses lack access to service that meets the federal definition of broadband. That number does not include people who can’t afford the service. And how many of those 70,000 households have school-age children is also not clear.
Jay Nichols, the executive director of the Vermont Principals Association, told lawmakers recently the problem became glaringly obvious when schools closed and kids struggled to get online.
“It hasn't gotten a lot better, it may be a little bit better, but… the last time I talked to anybody that was in the know, [they] said 50% of our kids still do not have the level of broadband connectivity they really need to be able to do the remote learning we're talking about across the state,” he said.
Jen Botzojorns can tell you what’s it’s like in her part of rural Vermont. She’s superintendent of the Kingdom East Supervisory Union, a sprawling, seven-town school district that spans Caledonia and Essex counties.
“The connectivity varies from town to town,” she said. “In some towns, everybody has connectivity except maybe one or two students, but then about 30% [of] it’s poor quality, and it doesn’t work very well. In other towns, you have 40% who don’t have good connectivity, or 50%.”
Botzojorns said this causes grave inequities in education. Students and families with high speed internet can attend parent-teachers conferences online, have one-on-one sessions with teachers and not lose a minute waiting for a page to load or a video to start.
Those struggling with reading or math, for example, may need intensive instruction that’s not possible remotely without a good connection. Botzojorns said in a crisis, people in poverty suffer the most, and that's true now as well.
“Our biggest issue is, we are public schools — we serve every child, and that is the dream of America, right? You get your education and then you can become anything,” she said. “And then suddenly a huge percentage of children aren’t able to access it. And that to me is the opposite of what we want to be doing for our schools.”
"A huge percentage of children aren't able to access [education]. And that to me is the opposite of what we want to be doing with our schools." — Jen Botzojorns, Kingdom East School District superintendent
One of the district's seventh grade teachers, Sophie Branson Gill, said she saw the problem this spring when she tried to teach remotely. She spoke via Zoom at a meeting convened by Congressman Peter Welch on rural broadband issues.
“How can we offer those opportunities if our students can’t access them?” she asked. “How do we engage them in their learning if we can’t reach them? And how do we create connections without a connection?”
Branson Gill recalled one family saying “we’ve run out of internet” and their student couldn't participate until they could afford to add more data to their plan.
To first tackle the cost question, the Department of Public Service will use $2 million in federal COVID relief funds to offer up to $3,000 apiece to help consumers pay for line extensions to their home.
Clay Purvis, director of the department's telecommunications division, said the money is for people who have internet service near them, but can’t afford to extend the line to their house.
“A big broadband expansion project is probably not going to touch them,” he said. “And we have addresses like that all over the place.”
But you also need to build out the lines. A separate department program using $12 million dollars in federal COVID money will help internet service providers extend service to underserved areas. Providers can seek grants of up to $4 million apiece.
"A big broadband expansion project is probably not going to touch them. And we have addresses like that all over the place." — Clay Purvis, Department of Public Service
ECFiber, based in South Royalton, has asked for $1.2 million to target mobile homes and mobile home parks. These are traditionally under-served because all utility lines are buried, so installation costs are high according to Chris Recchia, ECFiber’s managing director.
“This is a really, probably once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, to try and get these folks connected in a good way,” he said.
ECFiber serves 22 towns in central Vermont and the Upper Valley and will roll out service this year to more. The fiber optic service is a product of Vermont’s first communications union district, an organization of towns that band together to provide internet.
If ECFiber wins the grant and if all the park owners approve, ECFiber could expand service to 13 mobile home parks in six towns. Recchia says that should cover about 411 units, with an estimated 250 children.
“Obviously, people are suffering and struggling, and this is a really good way to get lower-income people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford this stellar internet,” he said.
"It is not the virus that caused this need. It has always been there." — Chris Recchia, ECFiber
Similar communication union districts have sprung up all over the state. The pandemic has obviously made their work even more vital. But Recchia said U.S. society as a whole could have tackled the digital divide a lot sooner, with aggressive federal funding similar to rural electrification in the 1930s.
“It is not the virus that caused this need. It has always been there," he said. "And we are doing something that we could have done, and could do anyway, if we wished to put our collective brains together and into making life better for people all across the board. We have that ability.”
But the federal money the state will dispense this summer and fall has a strict deadline attached: It must be used on projects that can completed by the end of the calendar year.
Yet students need internet by the time schools start Sept. 8. Just how many more families will be served by then is very much an open question.
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