Schools search for internet solutions

09/09/2020

With classrooms operating online to start the year, school districts are hard pressed to solve a problem that has long plagued West Marin: internet connectivity. Despite a push by the Marin County Free Library to distribute Wi-Fi hotspots to schools, many students are still struggling to find a stable connection to attend class.

Now, the county education office is facilitating the creation of learning hubs, where students can get strong internet and adult supervision. Teachers and administrators continue to work with families to troubleshoot and switch devices.

No one-size-fits-all answer exists. Families purchase from several internet providers, and homes receive varying levels of cell service, depending on the company and their location. Information is lacking about who is suffering from poor internet, and teachers don’t always know if a student is absent. 

It’s also a moving target: One day, a student’s internet may be fine, but the next day the connection gets throttled. 

The issue is not unique to West Marin. Over 2 million Californians and half of rural homes in the state lack access to high-speed broadband service, according to an executive order issued by Governor Gavin Newsom. The order directed state agencies to pursue a minimum broadband speed goal of 100 megabits per second.

At the Shoreline Unified School District, low-income families who live on remote ranches or in crowded homes are the most susceptible to inadequate internet; these families may benefit the most from learning hubs. On Monday, community organizations plan to open a hub at the Point Reyes Library, building on one already operating at the South Novato Library. Hubs at oher sites, like at the EAH Housing complex, could open depending on need, staff availability and funding.

Each hub will have to complete a site-specific protection plan, which lays out safety measures for preventing Covid-19 transmission: symptom checks, physical distancing, face coverings, hand washing, cleaning protocols and coordinated entrances. Hubs can host up to 14 students, though smaller spaces like the library will have fewer. Library staff will help supervise, and the Bank of Marin donated $200,000 to finance the program. Teachers and principals are identifying students who would benefit the most.

“We are really working with all of the resources at our disposal to provide this for as many students as we possibly can, for as long as there is a need,” said Amanda Mattea, an education services coordinator for the county education office.

At the Bolinas-Stinson Union School District, the digital divide is widespread. All residents who live on the mesa west of Grove Road struggle to get a connection, according to Grace Godino, the librarian tasked with assessing and improving connectivity. 

The district also faces a shortage of hotspots; only one-eighth of families have seen their requests for the devices fulfilled, Ms. Godino said. Even for families without hotspots, the data is limited, so speeds slow down if too much is used in a day or a month.

The state’s target of 100 megabits per second is well above what most Bolinas families experience: Most residents have a maximum of 5 megabits per second, provided by AT&T. Families can pay more for high-speed internet, but data often runs out later in the month.

Horizon Cable recently brought high-speed broadband infrastructure downtown, with plans to expand, but the local provider is more expensive than AT&T.

Georgia Woods, a district trustee, thinks the school needs to search for a bigger solution, such as pursuing funding from the state and county, putting pressure on providers to improve and expand infrastructure and exploring the purchase of high-speed internet packages from AT&T.

“These are festering problems that have been around forever, and maybe it’s naïve to think that we're going to solve them, but I really think that we as a school need to make an effort,” she said. “It’s not going to solve itself, and it’s going to require a lot of legwork.”

Ms. Woods posed the idea of hiring a contractor to collect aggregate data about internet speeds that could be presented to the state to pursue funding. 

In 2017, the California Public Utilities Commission identified Bolinas as one area that represented the best bang for the buck for deploying broadband internet infrastructure; this year, the commission made $25 million available to improve internet service for student households, with priority given to rural and small districts.

While the issue of connectivity is most acute while classes are virtual, any solutions will last beyond distance learning.

“Prior to the desperation of having to go online, a lot of teachers would not assign online work, because of the poor connectivity out here,” Ms. Woods said. “And that basically meant that students would not have developed all of the tech skills that were required when they went off to high school.”

Schools can open two weeks after Marin moves from the “widespread” to the “substantial” tier defined by the state, based on its daily case rates. The county is on the cusp of moving down, but if it moves back up, the two-week waiting period starts over.