SOUTHERN COLORADO — As more schools across southern Colorado move to remote learning in response to rising COVID-19 numbers, the pandemic is increasing the disparity in broadband and technology between rural and urban communities.
"It's off and on, sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. Luckily we have hard-line internet which the weather shouldn't affect, but we're still having issues. I think it's because everyone is on the same server," said Brian Ohop, Ellicott resident.
Brian Ohop and Susanna Roland live in rural Ellicott where there aren't a ton of options for internet service providers. Century Link is one of the few for their area.
"They're okay, but with the homeschooling situation and everyone staying home I think everyone is on the internet so much, it's slowing down everything. Especially during the hours, the kids are supposed to be at school," said Brian.
The slow and unreliable connection is making it hard for their son Shane to do his homework.
"Right now I have A's and B's because I keep up with my work, but Wednesday and Thursday I couldn't do nothing so I think my grades dropped a lot in all of my classes," said Shane.
Connectivity is not the only problem impacting Shane's remote learning. His tablet malfunctioned and caused him to turn it back into the school, leaving him with no other option but to do his schoolwork on his smartphone.
"I would have thought if you turned in a device that had a problem, they would give you another one in return so during the school days he would have something," said Brian. "They have all of these windows and they have to watch the teachers and students, but you can't on a seven-inch screen."
Their neighbors are experiencing similar challenges with broadband connectivity and speeds. The Carr family also has Century Link and says at best the speeds aren't very good.
"We'll get kicked off Google Meets or the teacher will be trying to tell us something and the screen will just freeze then you'll miss what he wrote and you don't know what to write. Somedays I'll have barely any lag and somedays the entire day I'll lag," said Cameron Carr, Ellicott High School student.
"Sometimes you're trying to load something up and it takes a few minutes to load most times, but now when it lags it's like ten to load that one thing," said Ethan Carr, Ellicott High School student. "I'd rather be in school, it's a lot better for me especially because of certain classes where you can't do everything."
The boys' mother Erica says the price for Century Link is a little higher for the great speeds they had in town. With more homes being built in their area, she's concerned with even more connectivity issues.
"There's going to be 64 homes up the road and 32 homes going right behind us. Where's all that data going to go, how are they going to support that," said Erica. "We were told by Century Link, because one of our neighbors was giving them a hard time, getting Century Link because they said this line was full. So they managed to get it to them, but again they're not guaranteeing speeds. If they say that's full then how are they going to provide for all of the other homes that are going in."
Ellicott Middle School Teacher Matthew Booth says the biggest issue is that there is only one provider for most of the families in the area.
"So if they’re having problems, it affects the entire community. There's not really another option or anyone else for them to go to. They can either pay the price set by that provider or not have internet. With Century Link, I think the cheapest package is like $50 a month so if it comes down to putting food on the table or having internet, you’re going to go with the food," said Booth.
He says the further out from Colorado Springs, the worst the internet connection becomes. He says his district doesn't have a problem with the lack of devices, just the broadband availability.
"Just having the device doesn’t mean they’re necessarily able to do the work because they still need the internet. We have hotspots for them to use, but we only have so many and they only work so well. Unless a lot of people are trying to use them at the same time then their not so reliable," said Booth.
He says the connectivity issues are causing students to lose out on large chunks of their education.
"We’ve kind of been playing it the best we can. For the students who can’t connect at all, they’re not showing up to Google Meets and having to make it up when we’re back in the building. When we are back in the building, those kids are having to make up a bunch of work which isn't fair for them and stressful for them to get done in just a few weeks."
Larry McDowell, Director of Technology for Pikes Peak Board of Cooperative Educational Services, says the broadband and technology disparity has always been an issue but the pandemic exacerbated the problem.
"It really came to a head during the pandemic because the kids couldn't come in early or stay late to do their homework, they had to do it at home. It's been tough, but our districts have been trying to be very creative to get internet to them. One district tried to put hotspots on the bus and park it in strategic places, that didn't work as well as we hoped because hotspots are based on signals, and signals aren't great in a lot of these places."
McDowell says one district had so many kids without internet connectivity that they went completely paper during the first part of the pandemic. Delivering paper along with lunches on the bus routes.
"I've had one superintendent look into putting a giant pole on the top of our school building and everyone connecting that way, but even if we were able to do that it would still be limited to if you could see the pole from your house. Some of these kids live in valleys where there is no signal of any type."
Some other districts are struggling to provide the technology necessary for remote learning.
"Edison and Hanover School Districts didn't have a one-to-one program, they were kinda forced into it now," said McDowell. "We were forced to hodgepodge laptops meant for the classroom to give to students to send them home with something. A lot of them don't have computers or they didn't want to use their own because mom and dad have to utilize it for work."
He says the issue is bigger than just providing students with hotspots and laptops. The lack of existing infrastructure is the main cause of connectivity issues, but it's a problem not easily fixed.
"As it stands right now there isn't any company willing to invest in possibly thousands and millions of dollars into infrastructure for five to ten houses that are in a fifty-mile radius. Some of these houses are five to ten miles apart, sometimes even further. That's one part, another is that the mindset of the internet needs to be changed in my opinion. It's no longer a luxury, it's a utility just like electricity," said McDowell.
Since the pandemic began in March, improvements have been steadily made to bridge the digital gap, such as utilizing Care Acts Funds to purchase hotspots and devices. Colorado lawmakers passing HB20B-1001 would provide $20 worth of grants to school districts struggling to keep students connected. The bill prioritizing rural districts that experience the most broadband and technology issues.
"This bill was designed to stop the learning loss that is occurring, it's not seen as a long-term solution. The governor's office is continuing to work on broadband," said Mary Young, Colorado State Representative for House District 50. "Before the bill even came up, it became clear it was a barrier and source of frustration for teachers and families."
Young says the goal of the bill was to get the funds out of the door as quickly as possible.
"The priorities are going to be for districts who have access problems because they have families with free and reduced lunch and those districts who have the connectivity issues problems," said Young. "Some districts have a price tag for a solution that would not allow them to get enough money out of this to solve all of their problems."
While the bill is not seen as a long-term solution, Young says the governor's office is working on sustainable broadband legislation. Another part of the grant consideration will be how long it will take for the district's plan to be implemented. The funds are planned to be distributed in February.
"There was some pushback about if the funds should be used now because it's not a long-term solution. Not only do we have students with connectivity issues, but a survey that we did in northern Colorado of 425 educators also showed 20 percent of the educators experience connectivity problems."
Young says there's just no way a $20 million grant will meet all of the current needs in the state. While some districts believe the new legislation will help bridge the digital gap, others like McDowell are skeptical.
"I was reading through it and it can do a number of things. It can permit the district to buy broadband for a student or staff member if need be, but that's if they have it. They may not have the access, maybe inside of the town but then you go outside of the town and there's no access. So it doesn't help those people that don't have access. Also, it says you can put it toward infrastructure but I don't know how you're going to get it. Infrastructure is the long-game, and you're going to have to do a lot of planning," said McDowell.
He says the bill is a good start, but $20 million will only go so far.
"You could almost dedicate that to one part of Colorado and try to improve the infrastructure there then go for another part of Colorado with a new section of funding than do them in implements. But $20 million for the entire state, I feel like it's going to get eaten up pretty quick," said McDowell.
In the meantime, rural districts continue to search for solutions. Calhan Public School Superintendent David Slothower partnering with T-Mobile to provide students with additional hotspots.
"As a part of Project $10 million which is providing a ton of other things by T-Mobile, they're providing hotspots based on needs from districts. We're in the process of procuring those so we can expand that type of access to families who need them," said Slothower.
He says it's not a long-term solution or 100 percent solution because of the district's size and geographic location.
Rural families want more permanent solutions rather than quick fixes that last for short periods of time.
"Fiberoptics I think is the best route to go because you can have thousands on there but you never have issues. I've heard nothing but good things, " said Brian.
If the pandemic continues to keep people at home and students from the school, he says there has to be more attention brought to the challenges their community is facing.