If there's one thing the COVID-19 pandemic has done consistently, it has been to highlight weaknesses in various areas, whether that be hospital supplies, food processing businesses or, more locally, broadband access.
There have been warnings about all of these weaknesses for years. Local governments and chambers of commerce, for example, have been brainstorming broadband access almost as long as it has existed.
However, with relatively few individuals using internet to work from home or get an education from home, the consequences of limited broadband access have been almost hypothetical. That is, until school children across the state all suddenly became distance learners. For some of those students, it became obvious what a difference a fast internet connection makes.
“My seventh-grader has a video from her history teacher, and it's really wonderful that the teachers are using this technology because I want to see them and you want to have engagement and the video is a great way to do that,” said Kathy Moore, of Lake Shore. “Unfortunately it's a 5-minute video that takes her about a half hour every day to download. So she has to basically start downloading it and then find something else to do but she's waiting for it to load up.
"My junior has several AP classes. And so their assignment load is a little bit stronger than the average high school kid. She was working on an AP physics problem, or assignments, a couple days ago and trying to upload and it took her 90 minutes to upload the file," Moore said. "I think if she was on campus and loading that file up, it would have taken a minute. It's just different. It's just one of those dramatic differences.”
Moore's son participates in Google Classroom, however, with lag he finds it is impossible to participate live with the class because buffering times and freeze ups mean he's experiencing the class in a way that is delayed compared to other students.
Moore's family lives in a neighborhood that doesn't have reliable internet. It isn't an issue of affordability, but availability. As a result, her children use a cell phone hot spot, like many students in their position. And like many families, Moore lives in a location where reliable internet may just be down the block.
“It costs more than regular telephone - fine, of course,” Moore said. “But you at least have access to that while everyone else does not. Everyone else is left to find hot spot satellites or going to Wi-Fi because there's not a broadband option.”
This problem has proven very common throughout the Pine River-Backus and Pequot Lakes school districts. In many cases, internet service providers have brought broadband as close as just down the street from some families, but maybe because of the relatively few number of people living on their street, connectivity stops there. Bringing it the rest of the way can be too expensive for many families.
Pequot Lakes Middle School Principal Mike O'Neil understands the struggle.
“It is certainly bound by geography as much as it is about socioeconomic status,” O'Neil said. “My wife and I are both educators in our district. We have two boys at home. We live on a private road, and we're just fortunate that we have wealthy people that live on either side of us that paid to have it trenched in.”
O'Neil is aware that many families in his district struggle the same way Moore's family does. For those families, the Pequot Lakes School District has ordered hot spots to distribute to students in similar situations.
“We ordered 40 hot spots to service our school district because we knew we would have needs,” O'Neil said.
So far the district has distributed six hot spots, though shipping delays meant they only recently arrived.
Pine River-Backus School District asked families to fill out a survey identifying technological needs at the beginning of the COVID-19 shutdown. As a result, they may have more concrete data available on the subject.
“Fifty percent of the families have responded to that survey,” said Technology Director Kevin Furst. “And of that, 7% had responded that they had no internet at all. That's actually a surprisingly small number. But I think that the saving grace in that is both the internet providers and the broadband providers offering free internet during this time for families, so we had quite a few families go and sign up. And then also the mobile providers providing hot spot access essentially and removing data caps on plans.”
In addition to seeking mobile plans and free emergency ISP services, families have been finding other workarounds to make their internet work better for them.
“There are some areas that there is just no internet service in the area for them to use and the family doesn't have a cell phone or something like that,” Furst said. “And we have a couple families that don't qualify for the free internet plans for a variety of reasons.”
The same buses that deliver meals for students along their routes are also delivering homework in both traditional paper and book format as well as electronically. Some students have been in communication with their teachers more by telephone.
“Beyond that there are some cases where students are doing schoolwork at a neighbor's house, or at a daycare instead, because they have internet at those locations,” Furst said.
Families can also work together to make sure nobody else is using internet during live classes, or to make sure that only one student is uploading or downloading at a time. They should also be mindful of apps running in tabs or in the background.
“I've got 12 tabs open, one of which is Pandora,” said O'Neil. “And I am just sucking up bandwidth. That's the norm for me. And, you know, I would certainly not be able to do that if I was using a hot spot.”
Moore said when she is working from home and uploading large files she tends to drive to where she can access a free hot spot, and students could use that tactic during this time as well. However, scheduling has been particularly helpful.
“There's a lot of creativity in this situation,” Moore said. “They take notes and log in in the morning and figure out who has to be online for something like a live stream at a certain time. My son has a live stream at 10 a.m. every day that he has to log into. The others know not to go online at 10 a.m..”
O'Neil said the experience has demonstrated how important broadband internet is to education as well as small businesses and families as a whole. In a way, access can determine who has the best chance at success.
“I'll definitely go on record with this one, that high speed internet is a utility that should be equitable as much as water, as much as electricity and gas,” O'Neil said.
Travis Grimler may be reached at 218-855-5853 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter at www.twitter.com/@PEJ_Travis.