The state’s shift to remote learning during the pandemic has highlighted a serious lack of internet access for both students and staff.
The State Education Department is surveying school leaders on the issue, but anecdotal reports from the field are disturbing. For many, internet service is unaffordable. For others, particularly in rural areas, it’s simply unavailable. “It is not just students who struggle to get Wi-Fi access,” said NYSUT Executive Vice President Jolene DiBrango. “We have educators who have to drive to their school parking lot to log into the district Wi-Fi just to conduct their remote classes or upload course materials. That is unacceptable and deeply unfair.”
After appearing in online faculty meetings huddled in her car with a blanket, parked outside her school, Peru biology teacher Catherine Butts said her district finally made special arrangements for her and four other teachers to sit in the gym during certain hours. With high-speed service unavailable for her rural Adirondack home, internet providers estimated it would cost her $10,000 for a new line.
Butts is certainly not alone. The St. Lawrence BOCES has identified at least 900 students without internet service. The Gouverneur superintendent offered land to a provider, but was told there were not enough area homes to justify building a cell tower. In other areas, school buses equipped with Wi-Fi circulate around districts acting as mobile hotspots.
“We’re also concerned that many of the free internet offers are expiring,” said Mary Wills, coordinator of the St. Lawrence County People Project. “We’re working with local representatives and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s office to call attention to the problem, but the bottom line is that internet service has to be recognized as an essential service.”