In the coronavirus era, internet access is a family’s lifeline to education, entertainment, engagement and socialization, but in spite of community efforts, some Connecticut families are still offline.
According to a survey from the state Department of Education, approximately 6% of Connecticut families reported internet access as a barrier to greater participation in distance learning.
The survey compared internet access for the state as a whole and the 10 “Opportunity Districts,” which have been participating in virtual learning at a much lower rate than the state as whole. The Opportunity Districts, which are the 10 lowest-performing school districts, make up 20% of the state’s school-aged population but 35% of the population that lacks reliable internet access.
While Comcast and other internet providers established free wifi hotspots throughout their coverage areas during the spring semester, for many families, this service wasn’t enough.
“Comcast offers them the 999 version, free internet — which is greatly appreciated,” said Milly Arciniegas, executive director of Hartford Parent University. “But comparing 25 megabytes of bandwidth to 500 is two different things. It’s like, ‘Thank you! But we really need more power here.’”
As school moved online in mid-March, students had to load programs like Zoom and Adobe Creative Commons on their home computers, often at the same time as a parent or sibling was also on the computer. So while the school may have supplied them with devices, and Comcast with free internet, it was still difficult to do work.
“Pretty much most families have the tools, but we are only able to provide an equitable, quality virtual education if the bandwidth of the internet is equal for everyone,” Arciniegas said.
Nate Quesnel, superintendent of East Hartford schools, said for his students, access to devices like laptops has been a larger barrier than internet access. Quesnel said 2-5% of students in East Hartford, which is an Opportunity District, reported issues specifically with connectivity.
“The device barrier has been a much larger barrier for us,” Quesnel said. “We handed out over 1,000 devices in the district, almost 20% of the students.”
The now-disbanded Connecticut Partnership donated 60,000 laptops to some of the 30 neediest districts. Some of the laptops arrived in the first few weeks of May. The rest were expected to be delivered in June and July.
Based on a statewide survey of superintendents by the state education department, 10% of families reported a lack of a device or a shared device as a barrier to distance learning.
Damaris Ruiz, of East Hartford, said her 12-year-old son’s laptop broke as schools transitioned to distance learning. She and her husband looked into buying a laptop but it was expensive.
“It’s like $300 or $400 for a laptop and sometimes they don’t even have that much memory,” Ruiz said.
Ruiz was able to get her son a laptop by emailing the district.
“They were very quick about it,” Ruiz said. “I emailed them and already by the next morning I got an email back saying, ‘Alright come pick up a device for him.’”
While East Hartford is not a 1:1 district, meaning they do not have a laptop or device for every student, Ruiz was lucky. However, she said that going forward, it’s important that all students are able to access a device because virtual education isn’t going away.
“The same way you need paper and pencils for school, now you need a laptop,” Ruiz said. “You need some kind of device you can work on. Most people have smartphones. There is only so much you can do on a smartphone. It is really hard to write a paper on a smartphone.”
Through the CARES Act and community donations, many schools were able to provide students with Chromebooks to use for virtual school. But now that school is over, access to the internet remains important, according to Tom Piezzo, president of the Connecticut Library Association.
“Right now (wifi) is one of the only means of socialization and connection and a key part of child development,” Piezzo said. “Libraries, for instance, we still have our summer reading, our teen advisory board and children’s concerts and story time. These are all things they would have access to for recreation and culture when we were open. We need to find an analogous outlet for it while we are in a modified stance.”
The modified outlets are usually virtual and require a device and wifi. Several libraries are offering online summer reading programs and those without technology access will miss out on these learning opportunities.
Piezzo, who is also the director of Brainerd Memorial Library in Haddam, said he is working to set up hotspots at the library that will allow patrons to sit outside on picnic benches and use the internet while the library is closed.
Arciniegas believes Connecticut’s General Assembly needs to do more to help families access the internet because nowadays it is an “essential.” She said there are resources out there to help struggling families, but often in order to access the resources, one needs access.
“We’re telling families, ‘Log on, we’ve done all this work!’” Arciniegas said. “And they can’t log on. Even with jobs and assistance, you need to go online to submit a budget sheet. I don’t think the state Department of Education gets it when it comes to this. They think they are going to solve this with hotspots to give to families. The bandwidth is not enough. Thank you very much, but no thanks.”
A group of advocates led by the Office of the Child Advocate called on the state to develop “a clear strategic plan of action to address device and internet access as basic need and a public structure for reporting on distribution and connectivity efforts.” The report urges state legislators to address this issue along with other educational disparities in a special session.
Piezzo is also calling on elected officials for help. He just finished writing a letter to U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal on behalf of the Connecticut Library Association about the Library Stabilization Fund Act, which would establish a $2 billion fund to address financial losses that hurt libraries. The legislation was introduced in Congress on July 2.
“It would provide more supplemental funding for libraries so we can get more wifi hotspots, so we can provide things like digital literacy training so people know how to use these resources to help them with employment and job resources and resumes and general schoolwork,” Piezzo said. “The funding is a big part of this. It’s not that we just need more Clorox wipes. We need more databases, devices and hotspots.”
In the face of a significant digital divide and silence from the state government, private foundations have helped close the gap.
The Hartford Foundation for Public Giving and First Book charities awarded $1 million in grants to six school districts to help with Chromebooks and internet connectivity funded by the LEGO Group and the LEGO Foundation. The grants will enable 3,000 students to participate in distance learning for the first time.
The patchwork of charity, helpful libraries and weak hotspots does not satisfy Arciniegas who said the parents she supports in Hartford deserve a government response.
“It’s an essential,” Arciniegas said. “It’s like electricity at this point. This is how people are able to survive, to connect to resources.”