It is estimated that 15% of students in the Capital Region — more than 11,000 students — have no internet access. That’s according to a recent survey of the school superintendents in the Capital Region BOCES.
The issue has far reaching effects for school districts in rural areas like Duanesburg Central School District, heightened in a time of remote learning. Superintendent Dr. James Niedermeier has taken action by joining a legislative coalition of area superintendents. They are advocating for the expansion of high-speed internet utilities in underserved communities.
The committee has met with federal government leaders including U.S Sen. Charles Schumer, U.S. Rep. Antonio Delgado and U.S. Rep. Paul Tonko.
“This issue is important to me and the DCS community, and I’m doing everything I can to address it and make sure all of our students have equitable access to this basic utility,” Niedermeier said.
Niedermeier, Assistant Superintendent of Management Services Jeffrey Rivenburg and Management Information Systems Director Joseph O’Neill have met with the Duanesburg broadband committee, which is tasked with making sure that all the residences in Duanesburg have access to broadband.
“The committee has already mapped all the homes in Duanesburg without access, and I hope that they will help us expand their mapping efforts to cover the boundary of the entire district and not just that one town,” Niedermeier said.
Watch: WTEN news segment about push for rural broadband
Overcoming the digital divide
DCS has made it a priority to integrate technology into classrooms to make sure students will be successful in college and career. The district has launched a 1:1 Chromebook initiative that aims to put a device in the hands of each student.
“While providing devices at school solves one part of the problem, the digital divide still exists if students have no accessibility at home,” Niedermeier said. “Having the device serves little purpose if the student is unable to get to their assignments and review materials once they have left the building. Our goal is to close this digital divide and create a level playing field for all learners.”
DCS has provided school-owned hot spots to approximately 18% of its students because they cannot access broadband internet at home.
Burning through data
Parent Denise Schaeffer says her family has had to overcome this issue for years.
“There have been times throughout the years when my kids have had to do research online, we’ve packed up the laptop and gone to a friend’s houses to complete homework assignments,” Schaeffer said. “This would happen sometimes three times a week when all three kids were in school.”
In the absence of broadband, Schaeffer’s family purchases internet services through a cell phone carrier. The service is not unlimited. Charges are based on a set amount of data, with extra fees if they use more.
“Attending school online for hours along with her college-age sister at home attending school burns through data quite quickly,” Schaeffer said. “There are times when cell towers are slow, which make a slow or non-existent connection. When SIM cards go bad it can take a few days to get back up and running.”
Even with school-provided hotspots, students in some areas are still unable to access the internet with these resources because of connectivity limitations.
“Having the hotspot from the school has given Valerie her own connection but at times we still have a bad connection — it comes and goes in waves,” Schaeffer said. “When not having to share a connection with other family members, that has helped keep it at better operating speed. It helps the family internet from going over its monthly limits.”
Lawmakers take notice
Gov. Andrew Cuomo made universal broadband a priority in his State of the State address this week.
“New York will also lead the nation in making broadband affordable,” Cuomo said. “Because without affordable broadband, people are not just disconnected, they’re disenfranchised. Broadband must be available to everyone, everywhere. And in New York we will make sure it does.”
Low-cost internet service is available for families that participate in the free and reduced-price meal program. However, broadband needs to exist in those areas in order for families to take advantage of these low cost plans.
Committee shares advocacy materials
The superintendents of the Capital Region BOCES have come together to create information outlining the complexities and stakes of this issue. The following information was developed for the January 2021 Superintendent’s Legislative Committee update. View this information as a print-friendly PDF.
Broadband: A necessity for today’s students
Disconnected students in a connected world
It’s been called the “homework gap,” but at a time when homes have become classrooms and lessons stream into living rooms, the fact that many students lack access to reliable broadband means they are missing much more than homework assignments.
While educators, advocates and experts have long warned that students who do not have adequate technology at home will be left behind, the COVID-19 public health crisis has brought the issue into sharper focus. The fact is that for many students, their ability to be successful depends upon broadband connectivity – and unless we find a way to ensure this for all students, we risk denying them their right to a sound basic education. Disconnected students are missing classes and are unable to participate in group projects, access research, contact teachers after hours for extra help, and more. In 21st Century America, we can do better.
It is true that many important initiatives have taken place at the state and federal level to increase rates of broadband access across society, and students have benefitted. However, across the communities of the Capital Region and beyond, there are still those who struggle for reliable broadband connectivity. The lack of affordability and infrastructure are among the barriers.
“Last mile of fiber”
This refers to getting the broadband cable from the area where it runs, such as a public street or right-of-way, to a residence. The expense of this is typically borne by the homeowner and is cost prohibitive for many. As a result, although there may technically be broadband penetration in a given area, many people may be left out because they simply can’t afford to bring it to their home. This is especially true in rural areas. Just as rural electrification initiatives transformed economies in sparsely populated areas generations ago, communities would benefit from efforts to make broadband access a reality for all. Otherwise, we risk leaving segments of the population out of education and the modern economy.
Students need a reliable connection to access today’s learning
When people first started to use the Internet, much of the activity was email and websites that were very simple by today’s standards. Fast forward to 2021: Today’s students need a strong connection that enables them to view video lessons and meaningfully interact with peers online. This is challenging at best on cellular connections and can lead to overage charges and other fees for those with limits on data. Similarly, while hotspots – leveraging a cellular connection for Internet access on devices – can be helpful, they fall short of what is truly needed. In situations where multiple people (e.g., students and a caregiver working at home) are drawing from a single hotspot, the connection can be easily lost or weakened. Students need the stable, strong connection to broadband day in and day out.
Although cellular connections, including hotspots, can be a solution in some instances, service remains nonexistent in some areas, especially rural areas. But, even in populated communities, there are spots where the coverage is weak or nonexistent. A cellular connection alone cannot be the only answer. Broadband cable is critical.
For many families struggling to meet basic needs, broadband is simply not part of the household budget. This is especially the case during the current pandemic and economic downturn, while many families find themselves turning to food pantries and other assistance for the first time. However, broadband is far from a luxury when students are expected to be able to connect to class or do school work from home. In some cases, when a cellular plan is used to access data, such as streaming a class or working on a project, it can lead to extensive overage charges and fees that families are ill-equipped to pay. Some families have taken to going to a coffee shop or fast food parking lots for free Wi-Fi. This should not have to happen in order for one to get an education. While schools have provided hotspots to students, a basic broadband plan can cost far less. However, there are no mechanisms in place that would allow schools to provide this option.
Looking into the future
The COVID-19 crisis has led to significant changes in the ways people are living, learning and working. There is no doubt that some of these new practices will be with us even when the pandemic is over. We should embrace the power of teachers reaching their students no matter their physical location, of students working together through technology, and of fully connected learning communities. However, until we are able to ensure all students have adequate access to broadband, we will not truly be able to realize the promise of technology. We will have students who are left out of a time of progress and what was once called the homework gap will be an educational crisis of its own.