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For Some Students Learning Remotely, Internet a Major Hurdle

Courtesy of Gabby Oja

Schools are wrapping up their first full week of remote learning - and for many students and teachers, that’s meant a lot of time online. But this transition has been particularly difficult for families without reliable internet at home.

Every morning this week 11th grader Gabby Oja got up, made herself a banana, cocoa, and peanut butter smoothie, and got online for a day of remote learning. But in her house at the base of Mount Monadnock, there’s a problem.

“If you live in the middle of nowhere in Dublin like we do, in the woods or near Mount Monadnock, the WiFi is normally really bad,” she explains.

Gabby’s family relies on the slow speed of 10 Mbps for phone and internet, which she says is pretty typical for the town.

When any member of the family needs to get on a conference video call for work or school, everyone else has to stop using the internet and their cell phones. And even then, when Gabby joins a class on the app Zoom, the connection for her and her friends is spotty.

“Some of my friends will text me during the Zoom meetings during AP calculus and they’ll be like ‘I can’t hear anything that’s going on,’” she says. “One time one of my friends asked if she could FaceTime me and I could show her the screen so she could see what was going on, but my WiFi was so bad that I couldn’t FaceTime her and be in the Zoom call at once.”

Gabby's teacher records the conference video, so if she loses connection during the live class, she often watches the recording later to go over what she missed.

On Thursday, Gabby learned these frustrations aren't going away anytime soon. Governor Chris Sununu announced that remote learning will continue until at least May 4th. And even Gabby - who’s focused and motivated - says this transition is hard.

And it’s not just rural communities struggling with online learning. The city of Manchester has good internet infrastructure, but many families can’t afford it.

Manchester West High School teacher Liz Kirwan has over a hundred students learning English as a Second Language, and she’s learned a lot about their home access in the last week. “There were some of my students that I didn’t know they didn’t have the internet until Wednesday of this week,” she says.

Kirwan says school closures from the coronavirus are revealing the digital divide for poor students.

“They use their phones a lot in school. You’re always like: ‘Put your phone away, give me your phone!’ in class so we make these assumptions that kids have access to technology and that it’s unlimited for them,” she says. “But really when they go home it’s not.”

The Manchester School District has been trying to help. They and many other districts across the state are finding ways to get tablets and laptops to students who need them. But that doesn’t solve the internet problem.

Comcast has opened free WiFi hotspots, but kids often have to go outside to connect. The company is also offering free internet to low-income families through their Internet Essentials Program, though the application can take up to a week.

Kirwan says her students are trying their best to get online.

“But they’re doing it infrequently because it’s a hotspot from their phone or they’re taking internet from their neighbors,” she explains. So now it’s Friday of the first week of remote learning and we do have students who are a week behind.”

The New Hampshire Department of Education says all things considered, remote instruction is going well. And for areas without internet, they suggest learning the old fashioned way - with paper packets.

Kirwan says Manchester is doing that, but her students need online programs to stay engaged, particularly as they try to learn English.

With this in mind, districts are getting creative.

Credit Sarah Gibson, NHPR
Superintendent Repucci preparing bus drivers at a deployment meeting

For years, nine school buses in Rochester have had WiFi units on board for students to do homework on long bus rides to sports games and field trips. But now, those buses have a new role: mobile WiFi units.

On Monday, drivers got trained on how to drop off the WiFi buses in neighborhoods the district had identified as needing internet. They park the buses and display a large sign with the WiFi username and password. Students go to the bus, write this down, and log onto Google Classroom at home.

Credit Sarah Gibson, NHPR
A bus driver in Rochester posts WiFi information in the bus' window.

Assistant Superintendent Sandie MacDonald and her staff are still figuring out how far the WiFi reaches.

“We were walking and we literally looked like that person on the ‘Can you hear me now?’ commercial. We have the phone up and we’re looking and testing to see where we drop signal,” she laughs.

But MacDonald says this experiment is working - they can see students checking into classes online. And the district is working with local internet service providers to open WiFi hotspots in areas the buses can’t reach. And other districts are interested in replicating the model, which is popping up in different iterations across the country.

And with the news of extended school closure, districts don’t just need a temporary fix - they need to ensure all New Hampshire kids can learn remotely, likely for months to come.

Sarah Gibson joined NHPR's newsroom in 2018. She reports on education and demographics.
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