Shaky internet access across Michigan poses problems for online schooling

With many Michigan school districts opting for at least some online instruction this fall, a trusty internet connection and a laptop is often a student’s only link to their teachers and classrooms.

But for thousands of kids in rural and urban communities alike, access to reliable internet and a device suitable for learning isn’t a guarantee.

And while local districts, nonprofits, technology experts and others have worked to address long-standing, systemic gaps in technology access to get students set up for online learning, significant challenges remain to fully address Michigan’s “digital divide.”

“When you boil it down, rural areas need infrastructure, and all areas need devices and affordable connections,” said Eric Frederick, executive director for Connect Michigan, a nonprofit that tracks broadband access around the state.

According to a statewide survey conducted in mid-April by the Michigan Association of Intermediate School Administrators, 29.3 percent of Michigan students statewide did not have access to a device at home to use for schoolwork. An estimated 27.1 percent of students did not have access to internet that could support some form of virtual learning.

Since then, the state has significantly improved on the device front, thanks to efforts by local districts and philanthropic groups, Superintendent Michael Rice said in an Aug. 21 episode of WKAR’s Off The Record television program.

Although there have been some efforts to distribute hotspots and set aside additional funding to address internet accessibility, Rice said, getting kids online at home when they don’t have fixed broadband access to begin with is a lot harder.

“Rural connectivity is very challenging, it’s expensive, it’s not given to the same sorts of solutions that the provision of iPads or laptops is given to,” he said.

Related: New map pinpoints public wi-fi hotspots across Michigan

Around the state, educators have gotten creative to fulfill short-term connectivity needs. Districts all over Michigan have set up public Wi-Fi points at school buildings, and at least one district has deployed Wi-Fi-enabled school buses to bring internet access directly to students’ neighborhoods.

Long-term, technology experts and education advocates say it’s going to take a lot of time, money and commitment at federal, state and local levels to fully bridge existing gaps in technology — and if it’s not addressed, thousands of students in districts all over the state will remain at a disadvantage even after it’s safe for them to get back in the classroom.

“It’s unprecedented times, but those unprecedented times are really showing us some important lessons about how our investment has panned out and why we need to really invest even more in vulnerable students,” said Mary Grech, Senior Data and Policy Analyst at the nonpartisan research and advocacy organization Education Trust-Midwest.

Forced to extremes

One of the biggest hurdles to high-speed internet? Footing the bill to run lines out to service areas off the beaten path.

Building out the infrastructure necessary for fixed service is a significant upfront cost, and areas with few houses often don’t offer the return on investment internet service companies are looking for. Areas with higher populations tend to have better access available through multiple internet providers — and service is typically cheaper because there’s more competition.

Jared Mauch learned this the hard way after he moved into his Scio Township home back in 2002. He assumed that at some point, a larger company would build out better internet infrastructure into his area, but as the years went by and his family got bigger, the meager options available were no longer enough. Eventually, he decided to take matters into his own hands.

“About two years ago, I finally decided to go through all the steps that were necessary in order to permit and build my own internet access, having identified that none of the existing providers were going to expand or be able to meet my needs,” he said, noting the project cost about $145,000 in all.

Construction was delayed by COVID-19, and Mauch, a parent of four Dexter Community Schools students, said they were able to get by, but said the speed and performance of their existing internet suffered due to the big uptick in traffic. As of August, Mauch has his own high-speed internet company up and running, and 33 of his neighbors are currently signed up to get the service.

Mauch acknowledged his path to better internet is somewhat unique — he has experience in fiber networks and was able to finance the project while navigating a complicated regulatory process.

“The majority of people…aren’t going to be able to go and spend even $5,000 to expand service to their home,” he said. “If there was additional financing available, either through a grant process or private enterprise, that would help.”

Related: Lack of high-speed internet leaves rural communities behind

The COVID-19 pandemic forced school districts to figure out how to reach students trying online learning in rural areas, but many are ultimately limited in what they can do for students where fixed broadband access isn’t available.

Mike Maisano, the technology coordinator for Manchester Community Schools in Southwestern Washtenaw County, said the district is providing T-Mobile and Verizon hotspots for rural students, and have a Wi-Fi hotspot set up at the high school.

But in some rural areas of the district, it’s even hard for the hotspots to get signal, Maisano said.

“We want to try and do the best we can for everybody, but it’s hard without the proper infrastructure,” he said. “We don’t really have any big challenges to give them the internet, it’s just the internet itself.”

New tech = new challenges

In previous school years, Brian Pacheco has served as an instructional aide at Richfield Public School Academy in Flint. This year, he’s tasked with tech support.

On Sept. 11, so many parents were calling him about their internet not working that by mid-morning, Richfield had to shut down school for the day.

“The parents were really concerned about their students learning,” he said. “You lose 10 minutes just every time you have to restart the modem.”

For many educators, students and their families, virtual learning has been a lesson in troubleshooting. Making sure there’s an internet connection, getting video streaming and mics to work, shutting off other devices so there’s enough bandwidth for schoolwork, learning how to use the new programs and technology their school chose to meet the task.

Getting devices and hotspots into students’ households was only the first step — now, it’s about getting them to work.

How well that goes can vary widely from school to school. In addition to internet connection discrepancies, education officials are choosing from several options for online learning material and working with an even broader range of devices, said Elliot Soloway, co-director of the Center for Digital Curricula at the University of Michigan. The center specializes in developing free digital-first curricula for elementary-age students.

Especially for young kids, interactive programs and an ability to work directly with their teacher are crucial for digital learning, Soloway said, calling initial attempts around the state to transition from face-to-face to digital learning mid-school-year “chaos.” Even with a solid digital learning plan in place, however, he said devices like iPads and Chromebooks still have their limits when it comes to education.

“They’re consumer devices, right? They’re not made for this kind of instruction,” he said. “We’re asking kids to write, we’re asking kids to draw. We’re asking kids to make things…They weren’t made to do what we’re asking them to do.”

Filling in the gaps

Even when kids aren’t being asked to learn virtually, a lack of internet or devices at home puts them at a disadvantage.

A March 2 report from Michigan State University’s Quello Center found students who don’t have internet access at home or depend on a cell phone for access on average have lower GPAs and SAT scores and are less likely to express interest in completing a college degree or going into STEM fields.

64{cb3fe4c54de06d7c4b8dceae281fb32e521027d1659af7adec2f427d2f5333d9} of students with no home internet access often or sometimes leave homework unfinished, researchers found, compared to 49{cb3fe4c54de06d7c4b8dceae281fb32e521027d1659af7adec2f427d2f5333d9} of those who rely on cell phones, 39{cb3fe4c54de06d7c4b8dceae281fb32e521027d1659af7adec2f427d2f5333d9} with slow home access and 17{cb3fe4c54de06d7c4b8dceae281fb32e521027d1659af7adec2f427d2f5333d9} of students with high-speed home access.

Nationally, about a third of households with school-aged children earning less than $30,000 annually lack high-speed internet access, and the disparities are more pronounced among minorities and rural residents, according to the Pew Research Center.

When COVID-19 hit, many outside organizations partnered with local school districts to try and avoid major gaps in learning for students without access to the internet or devices.

A coalition of Detroit-area businesses and nonprofits including DTE Energy, the Skillman Foundation and Quicken Loans launched the Connected Futures initiative, investing $23 million to get tablets to all Detroit public school students and fund data access on the devices through the end of the year. In Flint, the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation granted $163,000 to Flint Community Schools to fund 800 mobile Wi-Fi hot spots and 1,500 Mobile Guard applications for students and their families.

And in the Upper Peninsula, where challenges connecting rural households to high-speed internet are especially acute, more school districts and families are working with the Educational Access Network, a longstanding Northern Michigan University program that offers a low-cost LTE network option to Upper Peninsula residents for educational purposes.

Eric Smith, director of broadcasting and audio-visual services at Northern Michigan University, said about 6,800 households are currently signed up for the network, and the university is continuing to expand the program’s reach just to meet the overwhelming demand: “Just as soon as we get an area built out, we’ll get calls or we’ll get people who write in and say, ‘We really need the service in this particular area. We have nothing right now.’”

Related: How one Michigan university is working to bring high-speed internet to the whole UP

But no school district is immune to issues with internet connectivity, and many advocates say more long-term planning and investment is necessary to meet student needs.

“For Flint Community Schools and the Flint community, we’re without a doubt going to figure out how to meet the new long-term one-to-one demands,” said Ridgway White, the Mott Foundation’s president and CEO. “We can do that for Flint. We can’t do that for an entire state or nation.”

There’s likely more funding for rural broadband coming to Michigan through state and federal grants and subsidized auctions, said Frederick of Connect Michigan. But he noted that it could be years before results of any new investments are seen on the ground, as it takes a lot of time and money to build out new systems.

Grech, of Education-Trust Midwest, said she’s hopeful the issues brought to the forefront during the pandemic encourages state leaders to invest more heavily in addressing the digital divide.

“There’s definitely state leadership and local leadership starting to address this, but those are really just a step in the right direction,” she said. “And we need much more investment, not just around digital access but really around serving vulnerable students.”

MLive reporter Winter Keefer contributed to this report.

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