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Not everyone has internet access at home. Here’s how schools, companies, and officials are responding. - Boston.com

Not everyone has internet access at home. Here’s how schools, companies, and officials are responding. - Boston.com


Not everyone has internet access at home. Here’s how schools, companies, and officials are responding. - Boston.com

Posted: 17 Mar 2020 12:00 AM PDT

Employees who otherwise would be running to the office, jammed in traffic out on I-93 or smushed on an MBTA train are working from a computer at home. Schools across the state have closed for at least three weeks, shifting students to laptops in lieu of their classroom desks.

As the COVID-19 outbreak restructures everyday routines, our internet-centric society has become an increasingly internet-necessary society for life in the weeks ahead.

But not everyone had reliable, convenient access to the information superhighway, even when the world wasn't facing a global pandemic.

Twelve million students across the country do not have internet access at home, according to federal lawmakers, who say the coronavirus has breathed new life into a longstanding "homework gap" issue many face daily.

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Now, officials are calling for action, internet providers are rolling out new options for non-customers and low-income families, and local schools are taking steps to make sure students can remain focused on their studies amid the far-reaching ramifications of COVID-19.

Here's how:

What internet providers are doing

Companies are taking varying approaches to make sure communities stay connected, including bill relief and a pause on service terminations.

But when it comes to free and affordable service, some are offering precisely that.

Comcast and AT&T are both offering their WiFi hotspots — scattered around the country and Massachusetts — for free to anyone for 60 days.

"During this extraordinary time, it is vital that as many Americans as possible stay connected to the internet – for education, work, and personal health reasons," Dave Watson, Comcast Cable Chief Executive Officer, said in a statement. "Our employees also live and work in virtually every community we serve, and we all share the same belief that it's our company's responsibility to step up and help out."

Through its "Internet Essentials" program, Comcast is also offering two free months for new customers of the service, which provides internet to qualified low-income households for $9.95 per month.

"Additionally, for all new and existing Internet Essentials customers, the speed of the program's Internet service has increased to 25 Mbps downstream and 3 Mbps upstream," Comcast said on its website. "That increase will go into effect automatically for no additional fee and it will become the new base speed for the program going forward."

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AT&T has also pledged to make its hotspots free to use for the public.

On Friday, the Federal Communications Commission announced dozens of companies had signed its "Keep Americans Connected Pledge," in which they vowed to halt any terminations due to inability to pay bills because of the coronavirus; waive late fees incurred because of the pandemic; and open WiFi hotspots "to any American who needs them."

Comcast, AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, RCN, Starry, and T-Mobile are among the providers that signed the pledge, although companies other than Comcast and AT&T had yet to release details as of Tuesday.

What local schools are doing

Boston city and school officials are also working with providers to make sure students have access to the internet.

"We understand that home access to devices and to internet is already an issue for many of our students and their families," Mayor Marty Walsh told reporters on Sunday. "We are working with the internet providers right now on free and low-cost service."

Boston Public Schools Superintendent Brenda Cassellius wrote in a letter to families Sunday the district will release details for "no-cost options for internet and computers as needed" in the coming days.

A district spokesperson told Boston.com Tuesday that more information will be provided when available.

"We are planning on providing continuous updates to our school community during this rapidly developing situation and are working with service providers," the spokesperson said.

Students will be using school-designated Chromebooks as school buildings remain closed for classes through April 27. According to Cassellius, the district bought "an additional 20,000 Chromebooks to assist with families in need."

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"The new Chromebooks will be prioritized based on need to students in grades 3-12," she wrote. "We will use our already established equity measures to make these determinations."

Officials are also working to make sure families have support services for technical help with Chromebooks and internet access, according to Cassellius.

In Cambridge, households without internet access are being asked to contact their students' schools.

"(Cambridge Public Schools) is waiting on a delayed delivery of internet hotspots that we will distribute to families needing access," Superintendent Kenneth Salim wrote on the district website Sunday. "We are also monitoring the availability of potential free internet through Comcast's Internet Essentials program."

What lawmakers are doing

Ed Markey, Elizabeth Warren, and over a dozen other senators wrote to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai Monday, urging the agency to waive rules to allow schools nationwide to use funding to provide students with WiFi hotspots and devices with WiFi capability.

The lawmakers say the E-Rate program — which Markey penned as part of the Telecommunications Act in 1996 — could be a crucial source of emergency funding during the coronavirus pandemic. The program — which helps get schools and libraries online — has an annual cap of $4 billion, although only about $2 billion has been allocated this year.

The senators argue the remaining budget could pay for one-time discounts for schools looking to loan WiFi hotspots to students who don't have internet access at home, and for allowing school devices to be equipped with WiFi capability.

"The E-Rate program is, and has been for over two decades, an essential source of funding to connect the nation's schools and libraries to the internet," lawmakers wrote in their letter. "We believe that the FCC can use its emergency powers to temporarily waive relevant E-rate program rules and allow its beneficiaries to utilize universal service funding to provide home wireless service to existing school devices and hotspots for students who lack internet access at home.

"This swift, immediate action would help ensure that all students can remotely continue their education during the current public health emergency," they added.

Here are free and low-cost internet options

Here's how you can stay connected during the COVID-19 outbreak:

  • Comcast: Xfinity WiFi hotspots are free to use for everyone, nationwide, for 60 days as of March 13, Comcast says. Users only need to select "xfinitywifi" as the network name at a hotspot and launch a browser. For locations, check out this map. Comcast is also offering the first two months of its "Internet Essentials" program for free to new customers. The service usually costs $9.95 per month plus tax for qualified low-income families. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the company has also boosted the program's speeds up to 25 Mbps downstream and 3 Mbps upstream. New customers must apply by April 30 to receive the deal.
  • AT&T: AT&T is offering its WiFi hotspots free for anyone to use around the country for 60 days, as of March 13.

Your 60-second guide to social distancing during the coronavirus outbreak



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COVID-19 is driving students away from community college – maybe forever, says Bunker Hill president - Boston.com

Posted: 21 May 2020 12:00 AM PDT

Contrary to the common rejoinder that "we're all in this together" in the era of COVID-19, Pam Eddinger doesn't see the "equal opportunity" impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

Not for her students.

"I have, in the 25, 30 years I've been in education, never seen such stresses on students," Eddinger, president of Bunker Hill Community College, said Wednesday. "The huge switch online, which holds great opportunity for us in the future, was one of the worst things I've ever experienced."

The faculty took 1,700 course sections and put them online for their classes within two weeks. Eddinger says it was tough work, but not nearly as difficult it was for their students, especially those who lack the necessities for a receiving the same level of education at home that they would on campus.

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Laptops, WiFi, and a quiet place to study are crucial resources some no longer have. Many students at the college are parents who've had to find time in their days to attempt to be teachers themselves.

"I don't think there's equal opportunity in here at all," Eddinger said. "All the inequalities that we know that were sort of bubbling beneath the surface have broken open."

Eddinger was one of five Boston college and university presidents — from Emerson College, Boston University, Northeastern University, and the UMass system — who met for a virtual roundtable discussion Wednesday afternoon, pondering what exactly the future of higher education will look like when the dust settles on the COVID-19 crisis.

While all agreed that remote instruction will likely play a larger role in how students take their classes, especially in the coming fall semester, Eddinger pointed to the outsized impact the "digital divide" carves out for students from low income households, and how it jeopardizes their chances for keeping on course to their diploma.

Students who used to attend classes on campuses in Charlestown and Chelsea — where the virus has spread at a rate unlike anywhere else in the commonwealth — and now can't get online "just simply disappear," she said.

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"My fear is that the students who are truly in stress, we're not hearing from [them] and they will go away, and they will go away permanently," Eddinger said.

Internet access, in particular, has been a roadblock for many students in Massachusetts, though statistics available focuses largely on the lack of broadband available for elementary and secondary students.

According to 2015 Census data, 49,000 children under the age of 18 across the state do not have Internet service and 14,000 lack a computer at home.

Curriculum Associates, a Massachusetts-based ed-tech company behind the digital learning program "i-Ready" for students in kindergarten through eighth grade, recently released data showing student activity on the platform dipped after the initial school closures in March, but made somewhat of a rebound.

Still, students in low-income zip codes used the program at just a little over 20 percent of the level that they used it before classrooms shut down, compared to a more than 60 percent level for those who live in high-income areas.

Meanwhile, the virus itself has hit low-income neighborhoods and communities of color in Boston at higher rates than white residents and more affluent parts of the city.

BHCC students generally commute to the school within an eight mile radius, according to Eddinger. Of its 11,769 students enrolled in the fall 2019 semester, 67 percent were students of color, school data shows.

Eddinger said BHCC bought as many as 1,000 Chromebooks and laptops, as well as WiFi hotspots, for its students to connect with teachers, but noted that device training and an understanding of how the technology works is another hurdle some students face.

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And physical environment is a major factor too.

"I have students who will not put their faces on Zoom because they're studying in a closet and they do not want their poverty or their lack of resources exposed," Eddinger said. "So we're really talking not only about the digital divide, but the digital identity that has to be fostered in order for us to truly have the workforce … that needs to be developed to be beyond a certain layer of populations in terms of privilege."

Several other higher education leaders said they've experienced similar challenges with their students.

Emerson College President Lee Pelton, who moderated Wednesday's discussion hosted by the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, said the arts and communications school had also worked to provide devices to students who needed them this past semester.

"It has not been equitable because the environments that they have gone back into are not the environments that are conducive in every case for that kind of learning environment that they had in the residential campus setting," said Boston University President Robert Brown. "And you know the support structures that we can offer everyone residentially don't work nearly as well in the nonresidential model."

Eddinger said the future of higher education is definitely moving beyond brick-and-mortar classrooms and lecture halls.

But the students who struggle to get online are going to need more than just technology itself — they need "wholistic support that wraps around them," she said.

"We have done everything from allowing for pass/fail grades, allowing for a longer withdrawal period, allowing for incompletes to be finished over the summer — basically everything we can do to say to a student or a student parent who has multiple obligations, we understand, we're compassionate," she said. "Learning is lifelong. We should not let this particular point in the outbreak define your entire academic career, and to keep them with us. I think that relationship with us, whether it is academic, or student support, or emotional support, we want to be there."

And Eddinger is hopeful. She sees opportunity here, and pointed to the fact she can now talk about the need for universal WiFi and people understand what that really means and the stakes involved.

In the meantime, BHCC has also been supporting students by keeping its food pantry and deliveries open and ongoing throughout the coronavirus outbreak, even calling hundreds of students at any one time to give them that human touch, showing them that the supports are there, Eddinger said.

"We're hoping that that emotional connection will be stronger than the virus," she said.

Millions of public school students will suffer from school closures, education leaders have concluded - Boston.com

Posted: 13 Apr 2020 12:00 AM PDT

Only weeks after the coronavirus pandemic forced American schools online, education leaders across the country have concluded that millions of children's learning will be severely stunted, and are planning unprecedented steps to help them catch up.

In Miami, school will extend into the summer and start earlier in the fall, at least for some students. In Cleveland, schools may shrink the curriculum to cover only core subjects. In Columbia, Missouri, this year's lessons will be woven into next year's.

Some experts suggest holding back more kids, a controversial idea, while others propose a half-grade step-up for some students, an unconventional one. A national teachers union is proposing a massive national summer school program.

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"We have to have a recovery plan for education," said Eric Gordon, chief executive for the Cleveland Metropolitan School District. "I'm really worried that people think schools and colleges just flipped to digital and everything's fine and we can just return to normal. That's simply not the case."

The ideas being considered will require political will and logistical savvy, and they are already facing resistance from teachers and parents. They'll also require money, and lots of it, at a time when a cratering economy is devastating state and local budgets, with plunging tax collections and rising costs. As Congress considers another coronavirus spending package, schools' ability to make up ground may hinge on how much more they can pry from Washington.

The $2.2 trillion stimulus package approved last month included $13.5 billion for K-12 education. In the next round, a coalition of school administrators and teachers unions is seeking more than $200 billion, citing those depleted state budgets.

In New York state, for instance, schools were poised for deep cuts, with the state anticipating revenue losses as high as $10 billion. The stimulus package will reverse those cuts, but without more bailout money, schools won't get any extra funding to deal with the crisis.

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Just a month ago, most American children were attending school as normal. Today, virtually every U.S. school building is closed. Seventeen states have ordered campuses shuttered through this academic year, another three recommend it, and educators and parents across the country are bracing for a lost spring — and maybe more.

Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said last week that he expects schools can reopen in the fall. But he can't be sure, he said.

Whenever schools return, researchers say, the likely result is a generation of students forced to play catch-up, perhaps for years to come. Most vulnerable are those who are always the most vulnerable: homeless children, those living in deep poverty and students with disabilities. While some students are adapting to distance learning, others are struggling to find quiet spaces to study, lack reliable Internet access or must care for younger siblings during the day, among other barriers.

"This may be the biggest challenge public education has had to face in the four-plus decades I've been doing this work," said Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, a nonprofit coalition of 76 of the nation's largest urban public school systems. He said that online learning is likely failing many low-income families and that without "substantial" new spending, schools won't have the money to reverse the damage. "We are facing an educational catastrophe."

In some districts, the problem is just getting kids to show up.

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In the Los Angeles Unified School District, the country's second-largest system, 1 in 4 students has not logged on at all. Older students were more likely than elementary children to be connected, but on any given day in one recent week, a quarter of high school students didn't log in.

Before the coronavirus crisis, only about 1 in 4 students in the high-poverty Baltimore City Public Schools had computers. More Chromebooks are on order, but for now teachers are trying to reach families by phone and Instagram, and the district is broadcasting lessons over its television station.

"What we are providing now is not going to make up fully for all of the time lost," chief executive Sonja Brookins Santelises said.

In Atlanta's public schools, about 6,000 children still don't have computers, and about 10 percent of students have not yet logged in to the remote-learning system, Superintendent Meria Joel Carstarphen said.

One recent day, Carstarphen visited the home of a family whose children had not logged in. She found their mother struggling to provide food, and discovered the house was in an Internet "dead zone." She also realized she knew the family's oldest child, a "super sweet kid," from her visits to his high school football team.

"He's the man of the house and he's only a junior right now," Carstarphen said. "He has not been doing his work and neither have his siblings for three weeks."

Even when students have computers, parents and caregivers fear that minimal learning is underway. Billie Stewart is raising her 8-year-old grandson, Tony, on Detroit's east side. She's received little direction from his school, she said, and trying to keep up with the school's online offerings has been "almost overwhelming."

Stewart, 73, has worked hard to lay out a daily schedule for Tony but finds herself unable to keep up. "If I get asked for another password, I don't know what I'll do."

In Philadelphia's public schools, teachers have been told not to teach new material, due to concerns that lessons cannot be equitably provided to all. Philadelphia plans to begin remote education later this month, but for weeks families have been left largely on their own.

"We've been looking for guidance from teachers, but they don't really know what they're supposed to be doing," said Stacy Stewart, who has two children in a North Philadelphia elementary school, plus 1-year-old twins. "Ever since they've been out of school, there's been no structured virtual learning. It's just been flying by the seat of their pants."

The school provided a study packet for Mikail, a second-grader, but no direction for Abdul Malik, who's in kindergarten, other than links to a few education websites. There's only one computer in the house, which Stewart needs for work, and it's been a struggle to keep her kids engaged in anything that looks like learning. "I mean, I'm not really a teacher," she said.

To understand how deep the setbacks may be, researchers are examining data on the so-called "summer slide," in which students, particularly those in low-income families, lose months of reading and math knowledge. Research differs on the magnitude of the loss, but there's broad agreement that this year's losses will be greater than normal.

NWEA, a nonprofit that offers student assessments, used testing data to forecast how much further behind students will fall. In one scenario, it projected that students will return next year having gained 70 percent of what would typically be expected in reading over the course of the previous year, and less than 50 percent of the expected gains in math.

Some districts are still working to implement and refine remote learning for this academic year. But elsewhere, school leaders are already weighing, planning and in some cases lobbying for a range of ideas to arrest the inevitable academic losses.

In Cleveland, the schools are considering an August "jump-start" session to get students ready for school. Gordon, the district CEO, said the schools may also need to consider a pared-back curriculum for a "recovery year" focused on the basics.

The American Federation of Teachers, the second-largest national teachers union, is proposing a one-month summer school for vulnerable kids across the country. "We have to figure out something in terms of the summer to actually nurture kids," said Randi Weingarten, president of the union.

But even such a simple idea has detractors, proving how challenging change will be.

"The newest building in our district is 55 years old, and none of them have air conditioning," said Becky Cranston, who teaches middle-school English in rural Bronson, Mich. "How much learning would happen in a room filled with 30 students when the temperature outside reads 90 degrees? None."

In Maryland, state Sen. Paul G. Pinsky (D-Prince George's), chairman of the education committee, has proposed year-round school. Baltimore is considering that for its underperforming schools, along with extending the school day and possibly starting earlier in the fall.

But similar suggestions didn't go far in Atlanta, said Carstarphen, the superintendent. She floated the idea of a longer school day or school year, she said, but was quickly shut down by middle-class parents who don't want to give up extracurriculars. Instead, Carstarphen is hoping to channel thousands of additional students into existing summer enrichment programs that focus on topics such as science and the arts. But she said doing so depends on new funding.

Miami-Dade County Public Schools has a more targeted plan: remediation for the most at-risk students, including those who live in poverty or have disabilities, newly arrived immigrants and those learning English. Superintendent Alberto M. Carvalho said it's possible these students will see "historic academic regression."

The district plans to use online log-in data to determine who has fallen behind and then target interventions. Some students will see school extend into the summer, and some will come back early. The district plans to redeploy staff members who have less work during the pandemic, forming a new one-to-one digital mentoring program for students who need help.

Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a right-leaning think tank, has a more radical idea: Holding back all students in high-poverty elementary schools.

"All of this time away from school is going to be particularly devastating for poor and working-class youngsters, many of whom are already below grade level," he wrote in an op-ed in The Washington Post.

That idea was rejected by many educators, who said it was akin to punishing children for being poor and unfair to children at low-income schools who are ready to advance. Still, holding kids back is on the table: Many districts are planning to determine who moves on based on work done before schools closed.

A more modest idea is to create half-grades to accommodate children who are socially but not academically ready to move up, said Keri Rodrigues of the National Parents Union, an advocacy group that has tangled with teachers unions and supports various education reforms.

"Maybe it's 3.5 until they are ready for fourth grade," she said.

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