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How do you study online without a computer or internet access? It’s a reality for many Colorado kids.

As school districts roll out online learning after coronavirus shut down schools, about 55,000 Colorado students don’t have access to a device and 64,000 don’t have access to the internet

Matt Dodge, a member of the DPS department of tech services, hands computers to each family waiting in a long line of cars on April 8, 2020, in Denver. Denver Public School officials were on hand to check out some 160 computers to K-12 students on a first-come first-served basis at 12 DPS locations, including Abraham Lincoln High School. (Kathryn Scott. Special to The Colorado Sun)
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Once Centennial School District R-1 attaches an antenna to its K-12 school building, students in the tiny San Luis Valley district will have a new place to access the internet for their classes: the parking lot.

At a minimum, Superintendent Toby Melster said, students will be able to come to the school, sit in the parking lot and use the Wi-Fi connection to complete their class assignments remotely. But the antenna may also be able to broadcast a signal beyond the parking lot into parts of the town of San Luis, where it also can be a challenge to secure a reliable connection.

That challenge has worsened as the new coronavirus has chased families home from school and work in the community near the New Mexico border. Melster said bandwidth can become strained as the nearly 200 students and their parents try to study and work. 

San Luis Centennial School Principal Kimba Rael sorts work material turned in by a student’s parent in San Luis, Colorado, on April 8, 2020. (John McEvoy, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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Centennial is just one of the Colorado districts racing to figure out how to continue instruction remotely now that schools statewide are closed to in-person instruction until at least April 30 to help slow the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. Gov. Jared Polis could extend the order beyond the end of the month. Colorado Commissioner of Education Katy Anthes says at least 20 districts aren’t waiting for that news and have committed to remote schooling for the rest of the academic year.

But gaps in access to technology among students — which the pandemic has brought into sharp focus — are complicating the move to online learning. Districts in rural and urban areas of Colorado have faced the same quandary: How do you keep all students progressing in their academics when many households lack essential tools, like an internet connection and computers or tablets? 

And, as districts large and small rush to transition students to remote learning, they’re competing for the same dwindling supply of Chromebooks, hot spots and other devices, which is hindering administrators’ ability to keep their kids connected.

A needs assessment of Colorado’s 178 school districts revealed that Colorado has about 55,000 students who do not have access to a Wi-Fi-enabled device and about 64,000 students who do not have access to the internet, Anthes said during a Colorado State Board of Education meeting last week.

Centennial School Principal Kimba Rael puts together a student’s next work assignment on the assembly line table on April 8, 2020. The pre-K through 12 school in San Luis, Colorado, is handling remote learning for its students with education packets that are completed by the students and then returned to teachers. (John McEvoy, Special to The Colorado Sun)

In the Centennial School District, more than 10% of households have no internet access and nearly half of households don’t own a computer, according to data provided by the Associated Press.

In 75 school districts in Colorado, more than 10% of households have no internet access, and in 112 school districts more than 10% of households do not have a computer, AP reported based on U.S. Census Bureau and National Assessment of Educational Progress data.

“There’s a large equity-access gap that exists in any community around who has access to technology and reliable internet service,” said Landon Mascareñaz, vice president of community partnerships at the Colorado Education Initiative, a nonprofit that helped facilitate the state needs assessment. “And all districts, regardless of urban or rural, are having to think of innovative ways to connect their families and students to meaningful learning opportunities.”

Rural and metro districts across Colorado have reacted swiftly to the shutdown, lending their own Chromebooks and hot spots to households and finding ways to connect families with the internet so that they’re covered for at least the rest of the school year. 

A teacher, left, communicates with Principal Kimba Rael by radio letting her know which parent will be coming next to drop off and pick up student work assignments while another teacher, right, gets sack breakfast and lunch bags ready for the next wave of parents at Centennial School in San Luis, Colorado, on April 8, 2020. (John McEvoy, Special to The Colorado Sun)

There are common approaches they’re taking as they try to overcome gaps in technology access. But every community is different when it comes to being prepared for remote learning, Mascareñaz said.

“There’s no single statewide story,” he said. “It’s more of a community-by-community story.”

Reaching families in rural pockets, where connectivity is often shaky

Melster, the Centennial superintendent, said he has a hard time feeling comfortable with implementing remote learning when he knows the circumstances families in his community are up against. More than a quarter of the people in Costilla County live in poverty. The median household income is $30,593, according to Census data.

Asking families to shift to using technology for classes when many lack devices and an internet connection is almost like feeding them to the wolves, he said.

“How fair is that?”

San Luis Centennial School teachers ready for the arrival of parents picking up prepared breakfasts and lunches in San Luis, Colorado, on April 8, 2020. The district is installing a wireless internet antenna to the building hoping that it will allow students who don’t have internet access at home to do their homework in the parking lot of the school during the coronavirus shutdown. (John McEvoy, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The district surveyed families by phone to better understand the scope of their technology needs. Melster said that 30 families in the district responded that they don’t have access to the internet, with significantly more families indicating that they don’t have a reliable connection to the internet.

The way a family accesses the internet depends largely on where they live in the district. Some students live in more remote areas of the county and use satellite-based internet, which doesn’t always provide a reliable connection, Melster said. He added that most people in San Luis have cell phones, though data-plan limits, lack of Wi-Fi and a shaky signal in remote areas can present barriers.

Within the district, which serves 191 students in kindergarten through high school, remote learning has encompassed both online work and paper packets of assignments that families pick up and drop off each Wednesday at the school and community sites.

Melster said he couldn’t be more pleased with the way his staff has stepped up. Part of their role now includes checking in with families regularly to see how they’re doing academically and also in general.

“It is a new experience for everybody,” Melster said. “Families are being asked to stay home and work, and kids are being asked to stay home and learn, so it’s kind of a new world for all of us.”

Centennial School District has not determined how it will handle classes after April 30. Its board may decide the school should remain in remote-learning mode for the rest of the school year, whether or not Polis extends his executive order. 

Read more education stories from The Colorado Sun.

The district has so far distributed 44 Chromebooks to students and is preparing another 20-25, Melster said. The devices are older and were previously being used in classrooms.

The district is looking for new money to help keep students connected. It has applied for technology grants, including one from T-Mobile to cover the cost of internet access through hot spots — which enable an internet connection either through a smartphone or a standalone device — or Wi-Fi and another to help purchase hot spots, more up-to-date devices and additional technology.

Delivering Chromebooks door to door

Mountain Valley School District RE-1 Superintendent Travis Garoutte personally delivered Chromebooks to students in the tiny Saguache County district on the northern end of the San Luis Valley. The district has dispersed more than 50 Chromebooks to its students for remote learning.

The high-poverty district of 170 students in preschool through high school has been a one-to-one technology district since last year, meaning it has a device for every student at school. Devices that were used in the classroom have been given to kids who need them at home, Garoutte said.

The San Luis Valley Rural Electric Cooperative and Ciello install internet at the home of a Mountain Valley School District RE-1 student. The district partnered with the cooperative and Ciello to install internet for about 15 families so that students can complete schoolwork remotely. (Travis Garoutte, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The district, which also surveyed families online and by phone, began remote learning with paper-based materials and has increasingly been transitioning to online learning. About 15 families in the district did not have internet connectivity at the outset, Garoutte said. Through a partnership with the San Luis Valley Rural Electric Cooperative, which provides internet through fiber optic broadband service provider Ciello, the district installed service in those 15 homes. The district will cover the cost of service through the end of the school year, and Ciello is waiving installation and equipment fees and contract terms.

Close to 100% of the students and families who want internet connectivity now have it, Garoutte said.

The superintendent is especially concerned about keeping district staff interacting with students on a daily basis. The priority isn’t all on grades or assignments right now, he said. “We’re really focused on staying connected to each other.”

Same challenges, many more students, in Denver

Under the same kind of pressure, Denver Public Schools administrators sprinted to meet the technology needs of their students to prepare for the transition to remote learning last week.

Jeff Roberts, a member of the DPS department of tech services, stacks computers ready to be distributed to students. Lines of cars and people on foot arrive at Abraham Lincoln High School to pick up computers needed for online learning during the COVID-19 outbreak. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The district of about 92,000 students has distributed about 40,000 devices, mostly Chromebooks, to students in the past few weeks, with 37,000 of those having come directly from schools’ supplies, said Lara Hussain, director of MyTech, the district’s one-to-one technology program that currently serves about 14,000 students in 22 schools.

A few weeks ago, schools were distributing devices they had available for check out. Last week, DPS distributed 3,000 new devices, and it anticipates distributing up to 6,000 more new devices. The district, which also surveyed its students to gauge technology needs, has spent about $3 million on 9,000 devices for the sake of remote learning during the pandemic, Hussain said. Its schools will continue remote learning through the end of the academic year.

Jeff Roberts, a member of the DPS department of tech services, hands a computer to a student who had arrived on foot on April 8, 2020, in Denver. Denver Public School officials were on hand to check out some 160 computers to K-12 students on a first-come first-served basis at 12 DPS locations, including Abraham Lincoln High School. ( Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Devices have reached students through distribution events at sites where the district is also offering meals to families. At a distribution event Wednesday at Abraham Lincoln High School, a line of cars snaked its way around the building while a line of students and parents waiting to pick up the technology tools they needed continued to grow longer.

Norma Buenrostro waited with her son, Izrael, a second-grader at Knapp Elementary School, to get a Chromebook that he plans to use for reading, math, typing and breaks from schoolwork.

With a laptop at home, the family owns more technology than some. But with a son at Abraham Lincoln High School who needs to be logged on three hours a day or more, depending on his assignments, Buenrostro said having one device for the boys to share creates stress.

Norma Buenrostro and son Izrael, 7, a second-grader at Knapp Elementary, have their chance to pick up a computer after waiting in line together on April 8, 2020, at Abraham Lincoln High School. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

MORE: “The cruel irony of the digital divide” in Colorado: Urban poor are left behind even as access, technology improves

Buenrostro sees how much technology is embedded in education today. The Chromebook Izrael will use, which is smaller than the family’s laptop and “more fit for a child,” she said, “will prepare him for any type of career he may be looking for because you need technology to do anything now pretty much.”

DPS is also working to hook students up with internet access, Hussain said, by talking to internet service providers nationwide to ask about options for local families capable of home internet access and by distributing hot spots. Before the coronavirus closed schools in Colorado, about 700 DPS students were using district-provided hot spots, the majority of whom are part of the district’s MyTech program.

The district, which has opened up its technology inventory to charter schools, is trying to get more hot spots to its students, but is contending with a nationwide shortage.

Lines of cars and people on foot wait at Abraham Lincoln High School to pick up computers needed for online learning during the COVID-19 outbreak. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Hussain said the district has been fortunate to secure some hot spots for free through Sprint’s 1Million Project Foundation. Additionally DPS spent $567,000 for 3,500 hot spots and, after the national inventory of hot spots was depleted, spent another $99,600 on LG smartphones that have been locked down so that they can only be used as a hot spot along with two months of service that will allow students to access the internet, she said.

This week, DPS is piloting a mailing of about 200 hot spots to MyTech students — an experiment of sorts to help the district prepare for the possibility of not being able to distribute directly to students.

For more than four weeks staff have worked around the clock, including weekends, assembling and activating devices and expanding technology support from staff to students through numerous phone calls.

Hussain doesn’t anticipate the pace slowing down in the near term. The district continues to receive new requests for technology, forcing it to juggle how to meet student demands while also thinking about how to fix broken devices in the future.

Her words to DPS’s technology teams, students and parents: “Be flexible.”

“The challenges that we face are not all the same,” she said, “but we’re all in this together.”

Rising Sun