Amanda Bridges struggled to connect with her students last spring. Not emotionally — electronically.
Faulkner Elementary School in Stoddard, where Bridges teaches 4th and 5th grade, transitioned to fully remote learning in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic. That meant battling the rural town’s spotty Internet coverage, which she said created connectivity issues for about half of her students.
“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 Monadnock Region. In a survey conducted this past summer by the N.H. Department of Education, 32 percent of parents in School Administrative Unit 29, which covers Keene and several other municipalities, said technical issues disrupt their child’s remote instruction at least sometimes.
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 Michigan State University faculty research that was published in March. They are more likely to live in rural areas, the research found, and are disproportionately from families of low income, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Through a patchwork of responses this year, local school districts, public organizations, private companies and state agencies have expanded broadband in the Monadnock Region by making it more affordable and extending service to new properties.
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 Chesterfield, Harrisville, Keene, Marlborough, Marlow, Nelson and Westmoreland — transitioned to remote learning on Nov. 30 after its member districts had been operating under hybrid or fully in-person models this fall. SAU 29 students are scheduled to resume hybrid learning when they return from winter break on Jan. 4.
ConVal School District, Fall Mountain Regional School District and the Jaffrey-Rindge Cooperative School District plan to keep students at home for even longer, until Jan. 19, after going fully remote last month. ConVal’s temporary break from in-person learning on Nov. 30 had been planned since the summer; for Fall Mountain and Jaffrey-Rindge, the decision followed multiple positive cases in their schools and a rising infection rate in Cheshire County.
Hinsdale schools will also switch to remote instruction for two weeks after their winter break, which begins Dec. 23 and ends Jan. 4, the district announced Friday. (See story on A3.)
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 Antrim, Bennington, Dublin, Francestown, Greenfield, Hancock, Peterborough, Sharon and Temple — has distributed nearly 200 Internet “hotspots” to the district’s families, according to Assistant Superintendent Ann Forrest.
Similar to a smartphone hotspot, the devices connect to the strongest local cellular network from among Verizon, U.S. Cellular and T-Mobile to create a WiFi signal in the household, ConVal Systems Administrator Mark Schaub explained. And students are not charged for their usage.
“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.
The Jaffrey-Rindge Cooperative School District also took steps in the spring to address problems around Internet accessibility, according to district spokesman Nicholas Handy. Given the abrupt shift to remote learning in March, however, that response often included stopgap solutions for students unable to attend class virtually, such as providing hard copies of their work and other materials to keep them from falling behind, he said.
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.
Like ConVal, Jaffrey-Rindge has continued to offer in-person instruction for select students even after most of the district went fully remote last month. Qualification for its “learning pods,” as the in-person groups are called, is based on several criteria, including connectivity issues as well as social and emotional needs, disability status and other required services.
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 Robert Malay said. He explained that teachers across the school administrative unit distribute hard copies of the learning materials to students without reliable broadband, and faculty contact those who do not regularly attend class to discuss solutions and assess their progress one-on-one.
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.
Jaidev and Jiroh Marquette, 10 and 7, of Keene were among the SAU 29 students at risk of missing remote classes this year.
The boys’ mother, Luchie Marquette, didn’t resume working as a yoga instructor at Keene Yoga Center and the Keene Family YMCA after the coronavirus outbreak in March, due to safety concerns and because she does not have a space at home to instruct classes remotely. Without that income, she said it was challenging to cover basic expenses for her family, who live at Forest View Apartments — one of several affordable-housing properties managed by the public agency Keene Housing.
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 Fuller Elementary School — would be able to participate in virtual classes.
They were, with financial relief from a Keene Housing program launched this fall that has made $60 monthly payments to eligible clients’ Internet service providers on their behalf since October.
“It’s a lot of help,” Marquette, who is now working an assembly job at Smiths Medical in Keene, said Thursday. “It’s definitely peace of mind, knowing that they are communicating to their friends [and] to their teachers.”
The Broadband Assistance Program is funded primarily through a $183,000 grant Keene Housing received in August from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Payments to the families’ Internet providers will continue through June 2021 or until students return to the classroom full time, if that happens first, Keene Housing Executive Director Joshua Meehan said in September.
As of Thursday, 112 families were enrolled and receiving the monthly assistance, according to Liz Chipman, executive director of the Keene Housing Kids Collaborative. Three of the families never had broadband before, she said, and Chipman’s organization — a nonprofit serving children in Keene Housing properties — has covered $3,700 in overdue Internet bills that helped 18 of them avoid disconnection.
“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.
In June, New Hampshire launched a $50 million Broadband Expansion Program, funded by the federal CARES Act, to install high-speed Internet in previously unserved households.
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 Lisa Cota-Robles, deputy director of the N.H. Office of Strategic Initiatives. While it has not specifically targeted families with students, hundreds of properties have been connected in a largely rural area that includes Hinsdale, Nelson and Stoddard, Cota-Robles said.
Still, financial and technical barriers to high-speed Internet pose challenges to Monadnock Region families.
Luchie Marquette recently upgraded her family’s network from 100 megabits per second (Mbps) to 400Mbps because the lower level was too slow when she, Jaidev, Jiroh and her boyfriend were all online. That costs an additional $20, bringing Marquette’s monthly Internet bill to $35 for as long as the family continues receiving the $60 assistance from Keene Housing.
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 Great Brook School in Antrim in person would go remote until Jan. 4, following a positive case at the school.)
“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 Faulkner School led to the decision to return to remote learning until Jan. 5.)