Trachelle Bivins and her 5-year-old son, Ondrae Florence, come to the Central Library of Rochester to work on his RCSD online learning.

New York State Team

Story Highlights

  • Thousands of students and families are attempting to access remote learning without a stable internet connection at home.
  • Most cities have areas that don’t have easy internet access, and sometimes the available plans are too expensive.
  • Though districts across the state are attempting to provide devices and mobile connections, the gaps still remain.

For the past few weekdays, Crystal Berroa woke up in the morning not knowing how to help her two young daughters attend school remotely. 

Berroa lives in a shelter in New York City and repeatedly tried to contact school officials to help her daughters log into remote learning classrooms on school-issued iPads.

So far, she hasn’t gotten anywhere.

”If one (iPad) connects and the other doesn’t, I’m screwed,” Berroa said. “There’s nothing I can do. Sometimes it doesn’t connect at all during the day. My daughter is a first grader. She’s learning how to read right now. And I have no idea what’s going on.”

Berroa’s family is one of thousands across New York who have struggled with the transition to remote learning because of internet access or connectivity issues in metropolitan areas.

The problem is amplified this school year by the COVID-19 pandemic that forced New York’s largest school districts to start the fall semester online, often in the state’s poorest communities.

For the past five years, New York has focused on rural broadband, awarding grants to small internet providers to bring a stable connection to remote corners of New York. 

But even the largest cities have dead zones, with no major internet providers available. In areas where service is available, it may be unreliable or too expensive for some families to afford.

Data on broadband availability, quality and cost isn’t precise, and that’s keeping New York from truly addressing its digital gaps, community advocates and lawmakers argued in a letter to Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Monday. They urged him to sign the Comprehensive Broadband Connectivity Act, which would compel the Public Service Commission to collect data on high-speed internet in the state. 

With many school districts conducting partial or full remote learning this fall, especially in low income areas, a lack of stable internet at home could jeopardize the only connection teachers have to those students. 

“In some neighborhoods (in New York City) as many as 40% of schoolchildren could not afford the kind of high speed broadband they needed to participate in remote learning,” said Bob Master, political director for the powerful union, the Communication Workers of America Northeast, during a recent webinar on broadband access in New York. 

Internet in rural NY:Students and workers need high-speed internet amid COVID. But these barriers remain

By the numbers 

Rihanna Sepulveda, a seventh grader, works as remote learning continues in the dining room of her home in Rochester Friday, Sept. 25, 2020.  (Photo: Shawn Dowd/Democrat and Chronicle)

Multiple factors influence a family’s ability to secure a stable internet connection at home:

  • Poverty plays a role: 38% of all New York households earning $25,000 or less have no high-speed home internet connection, according to an analysis of the 2018 Census data by Future Ready Schools, a network of nonprofits and research groups. 
  • Cities aren’t exempt: 20% of households in New York metro areas don’t have high-speed internet; nearly 750,000 students live in those households, the group said. 
  • A problem in upstate cities: Large swathes of residents in upstate cities have no home broadband access, according to National Digital Inclusion Alliance data. In Syracuse, 32% of households had no broadband connection of any type; in Rochester, it was 20%, and Buffalo was 19%. 

Families adjust to online learning

Families without home internet access often turn to community spaces like libraries — but many of those were closed until recently and still have capacity and technology restrictions related to COVID-19.

In March, the Monroe County Library System, which operates over 30 locations in the greater Rochester area, lent 500 mobile WiFi hotspots to patrons and families who didn’t have home internet connections. 

“We knew these challenges were coming,” said Adam Traub, the library system’s associate director.

“Libraries have frequently been points of access for the internet, and we take that role really seriously. Especially during COVID-19, we’ve really tried to step up our efforts.” 

In Rochester’s downtown Central Library, it’s not uncommon to see grade school students set up in study areas with their Chromebooks and headphones, working on classwork with a parent or sibling supervising nearby. 

Trachelle Bivins and her 5-year-old son Ondrae Florence sat in the corner of a library’s large room study area, coloring sheets spread out in front of Ondrae’s Chromebook.

The two come to the library almost every day, usually at 10 a.m. when the doors open. 

Bivins sits next to her son for about six hours, guiding him through his days in remote kindergarten at Rochester’ School No. 23. She brings a plastic bin full of activity sheets, juice, snacks, pencils and crayons, and anything else Ondrae might need.

Ondrae moved to a new school this fall, but hasn’t been able to meet any of his teachers or classmates in person — Rochester schools will conduct remote learning for the first ten weeks of the year.

Bivins was apprehensive at first. 

“I was wondering ‘How are they going to have gym? How are they going to do that?’” she said.

“My first thought was, ‘I’m just going to teach him.’ But once we got to try (remote learning), it wasn’t as bad as I thought. It’s not like they’re sitting there all day….they give them times to get up and move and take breaks.” 

Though the family has an internet connection at home, Bivins’ two younger children are often home, making it a difficult environment for Ondrae’s learning.

The library offers a quiet, isolated space with a strong internet connection so he can focus, Bivins said. 

Down the hall from Bivins and Ondrae sat Boona and Gammachis Duresso, of Brighton. Boona, 9, a fourth grade Rochester student, watched a math lesson on his Chromebook screen while older brother Gammachis looked on.

The family recently moved to Brighton, a suburb east of Rochester, and had yet to install a broadband internet connection in their new home.

The Brighton library isn’t currently offering wireless connection to customers inside the building, so the brothers ended up at Central Library so Boona could attend his classes for the day. 

During the spring peak of the pandemic shutdown, when students were just figuring out remote learning, parents might park outside closed libraries to access the WiFi signal so their kids could do schoolwork, Traub said.

Now, libraries are offering limited computers with extended evening hours in some locations. Some branches are working on partnerships with local schools to offer in-person classwork help to students. 

Despite the efforts, the public appears to remain wary of COVID-19 in gathering spaces. 

“Folks aren’t necessarily ready to come back,” Traub said. “It’s been a slow reopening.”

More: A new app in NY, NJ, PA, Delaware will tell you if you’ve been near a COVID patient

More: The end of snow days in schools? New York can switch to online learning amid COVID

Remote learning not effective for all

Trachelle Bivins and her 5-year-old son, Ondrae Florence, complete his school work together at Central Library of Rochester on Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020. Ondrae and his mom have internet at home, but choose to come to the library because it creates a better learning environment for him. (Photo: Georgie Silvarole/New York State Team)

In New York City, perhaps the state’s most polarized example of the digital divide, an estimated 500,000 households don’t have access to the internet, according to nonprofit advocacy organization Citizens’ Committee for Children of New York.

About 100,000 school age students do not have internet services, and 80,000 report not having a device with which to access the internet, even if they have a connection.

“In New York City, where most people have access in most cases to multiple providers, you have a very serious affordability crisis,” Master said.

Most New Yorkers have one or perhaps two choices out of the major providers in the area, like Spectrum or Verizon Fios.

But those networks can be prone to outages and create an “oligopoly pricing” scenario, as Brian Hall, organizer at the wireless network NYC Mesh, calls it.

Some pockets of the city have no access to any major internet providers. 

NYC Mesh launched in 2014 as a volunteer-run wireless network provider meant to bring high-speed, low-cost internet access to New York neighborhoods. Customers pay a $160 installation fee, followed by a suggested donation of $20 per month for service, if they can afford it, Hall said. 

The group is currently wiring 600 apartments in Grand Street Guild, a three-tower affordable housing complex on the Lower East Side. Spending time connecting large apartment buildings is the fastest way to reach the largest number of lower income residents.

“We’re focused on connecting people, and doing that in the cheapest, most efficient way possible,” Hall said. 

Students in those target households are often also experiencing poverty and homelessness, leaving advocates concerned that COVID-19 and the shift to further remote learning will present yet another hurdle for them.

The state Big 5 districts — New York City, Yonkers, Syracuse, Rochester and Buffalo —all started the school year online, while wealthier districts mainly have had at least some in-person learning.

New York City changed its reopening plans just days before in-person learning was to begin on Sept. 21. Students started in-person classes last week.

Homeless students are of particular concern for online learning, many of whom live in shelters with no internet access, advocates said. 

“Remote learning has not been going effectively and well for all students,” said Raysa Rodriguez, associate executive director at the Citizens’ Committee for Children.

More: Spectrum renews offer of 60 days of free internet for students, educators. How to get it

More: Kids attending school remotely? How to keep them safe on the internet

Upstate districts bridging the gap

The Sepulveda kids all at work as remote learning continues for each of them in the dining room of their home in Rochester Friday, Sept. 25, 2020. Pictured clockwise from bottom left are Reinaldo, ninth grade; Jeremiah, eighth grade; Reina, a senior, Jacob, fifth grade, and Rihanna, seventh grade.  (Photo: Shawn Dowd/Democrat and Chronicle)

The Rochester City School District, in a city that has one of highest rates of child poverty in the nation, was already working on the local digital divide when COVID-19 hit. 

According to a survey by the group Roc the Future earlier this year, 20% of Rochester residents had no internet connection of any type, and 17% had only a cellular data connection.

That means 37% of Rochester homes did not have an internet environment that’s conducive to remote learning. 

Thanks to the 1Million project, a national initiative to increase student internet access, the Rochester district secured 12,000 mobile WiFi hotspots for Rochester students in the past year, which allow them to connect devices to a mobile wireless network. 

Additionally, the district lent Chromebook tablets to every student in grades 4 through 12 to facilitate online assignments and remote learning.

The Syracuse City School District also distributed 8,000 learning devices and 500 mobile hotspots, with hundreds more still waiting to be picked up. 

But Rochester is still a long way from equitable internet access, said Glen VanDerwater, the district’s executive director of instructional technology. 

Even though most Rochester neighborhoods are covered by at least one of the major area internet service providers — Frontier Communications, Spectrum or Greenlight Networks — the high-speed broadband packages offered are either not available or not affordable for some families in lower income neighborhoods, VanDerwater said. 

“Internet is not reaching our families in the greatest of need,” he said.

In the spring, Spectrum offered 60 days of free Wi-Fi to families with K-12 students who didn’t already have a Spectrum internet subscription.

The company renewed that offer in mid-September, and last week introduced Stay Connected K-12, a broadband program that will allow school districts to help students secure an internet connection. 

But that only gets families without internet access a brief reprieve.

People who can’t access the internet for the school year can’t use things like online classrooms, online health charts or online banking. It also quells the voice of consumers who are unable to communicate over the internet.

“As these utilities begin to develop without the input of our entire community, that utility is going to be built in a way that’s going to exclude their input,” VanDerwater said. 

More: Spectrum rates for cable customers to increase in August. Here’s by how much.

More: SUNY’s new COVID protocols: What could get you kicked out of college

Sarah Taddeo is the consumer watchdog reporter for USA Today Network’s New York State Team. She investigates stories about your consumer rights, including scams, negligent landlords, safety issues and wayward businesses.

Got a story tip or comment? Contact Sarah at [email protected] or (585) 258-2774. Follow her on Twitter @Sjtaddeo. This coverage is only possible with support from our readers. Sign up today for a digital subscription.

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