Following the lead of other states across the country, Colorado shuttered schools and businesses practically overnight. Workers were told to login at home, and some can’t work at all. Colleges and universities have gradually shifted to online classes, and some school districts are facing the heavy reality they may not reopen in the weeks ahead.
No one has a precise answer about when the coronavirus public health emergency will end, but most everyone has become dependent on internet connectivity for teleworking, so they can continue to collect a paycheck.
Students will need to do their learning and homework online, which is problematic for homes with only one computer, or with no computer at all. And smartphones are insufficient for students to do the proper research and writing assignments.
To help face the challenge, companies like Comcast are waiving late fees and making hot spots available across the country to help Americans stay connected during the outbreak.
U.S. Congress is rushing to pass legislation that would further expand internet access by waiving service fees and deploying high-speed access.
Kevin Aten, superintendent of the Bayfield School District, said these hot spots won’t be much help when there is spotty cell service across the district.
“For students in grades three through 12, we could send kids home with a device if we had to,” Aten said. But the problem is broadband deployment and internet capacity.
The school district did a survey in the beginning of the year, and about 10% of students don’t have adequate internet service.
Companies like AT&T and Verizon are “eager to help get hot spots out,” but the schools would need to enter a year-long contract.
Aten is also concerned about students’ mental health.
“I worry about well-being,” he said in a phone interview. “School is the center of the community and the center of life for families.” Suicide and feelings of isolation are already problem areas in Bayfield, and Aten said he is concerned about the short- and long-term impacts of isolation and social distancing on kids who live spread out in rural areas.
“I’m worried about how long government relief will take to get to the area,” Aten said, compared with major cities like Denver.
Meanwhile, the U.S. government does not have accurate or up-to-date maps of who currently has broadband access, so targeting areas that will likely need help the most would be difficult.
Julie Popp, spokeswoman for Durango School District 9-R, said the district is working with staff to build teachers’ skill set to do internet learning, but some families don’t have devices to access the internet at home.
Popp said companies like Scholastic offer free online services and programs to schools, which will help supplement teachers’ online lesson plans.
Students who don’t have access to the internet or a device at home will pick up paper assignments from a set location to reduce social interactions.
“We are working hard to support them and providing personalized accessibility for each kid,” Popp said.
The Durango School District will also offer pickup food services for both breakfast and lunch for any child.
But the great lengths school districts are going highlight a technological crisis that has already been prevalent in the area for years. Federal Communications Commissioners Mike O’Reilly and Jessica Rosenworcel acknowledged Tuesday during a panel event in Washington, D.C., that the federal government could have done more to address the country’s digital divide before the pandemic began.
But the coronavirus has created a “huge experiment in online learning,” Rosenworcel said. The FCC plans on voting in the near future to expand 6G technology to rural areas, which is faster and less costly to install than 5G areas currently lack.
But this kind of infrastructure fix won’t happen in time to handle the influx of internet users as thousands of students attempt to access it in rural Southwest Colorado.
Sean Woytek, head of Animas High School, said only 2% to 3% of students don’t have access to the internet or cell service in their homes.
But if multiple siblings and both parents try to access the internet at once, their service could move at a much slower pace, or it could crash altogether.
While most teachers and students are already set up for online learning, there are some students who don’t have internet access at home. Woytek and others will deliver packages of lessons to those students’ doors. But in spread-out La Plata County, that means hours of driving. But Woytek said those same students may not have access to transportation.
“In so large a county, there are so many dead spots,” Woytek said.
Rocco Fuschetto, superintendent of Ignacio School District, said the district already has the technology to handle school closures, though students met for classes Tuesday.
“We have Google Classrooms and Google Hangout,” Fuschetto said. He also printed 40,000 sheets of paper for homework packets for the elementary school alone.
“We are planning hour by hour. I used to say day by day, but things are moving so quickly,” Fuschetto said.
Emily Hayes is a graduate student at American University in Washington, D.C., and an intern for The Durango Herald.