|'Remote Learning' More of a Challenge in Remote Corners of Commonwealth|
|By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff|
02:18AM / Wednesday, May 20, 2020
Colrain Central School parent Kim Stevens talks about her family's struggles to continue her daughters' education without adequate internet access.
BOSTON — When school buildings across the commonwealth were closed two months ago, students and families were told to continue education at home.
But for kids in rural districts, going back to school could mean getting in the backseat of the family car.
"To help provide additional connectivity for our families, hotspots were recently installed in the school parking lot and town library," Colrain Central School Principal Amy Looman said last week. "Every day, cars line our parking lot with students trying to access their class meetings and parents and other residents attempting to work remotely for their jobs.
"With each passing week, the request for hard copy packets has increased as families have experienced frustration over frozen internet connections, choppy video conferences or just weariness at having to sit in a parking lot with a car full of kids — hardly conducive to a productive learning environment."
Looman last Wednesday found herself on a video conference, testifying before the Massachusetts Legislature's Joint Committee on Education. She and Colrain parent Kim Stevens were invited by Senate Education Committee member Sen. Adam Hinds to testify at the panel's hearing "Remote Learning and the Status of K-12 Education."
Stevens also pointed to the hotspots as a sign of families struggling to help their children keep up with their studies.
"Although many companies in our area have attempted to mitigate the situation with increased hotspots for families to use while sitting in their vehicles, this is not a feasible solution," Stevens said. "Continuing to work full time at an essential business leaves little time, let alone hours, to sit in a parking lot for several days a week.
"The absurdity of this would be almost laughable if it wasn't one of our only options for our children's education at the time."
Stevens told the legislators that when the COVID-19 pandemic hit Massachusetts and her children's school was closed, she and her husband did what they could to make their home ready to support the daughters' education.
The Colrain native does not have cellular service at their home, and the only option for internet access is satellite service, she said. Prior to the pandemic, the satellite service was enough to give the family access to email and "basic web browsing," but video chats with family or streaming services like Netflix were not an option.
"With the start of remote learning, we made a decision to increase our service to the highest amount available, at a considerable cost increase, with the hope that we would be able to provide our children better access for their school work while still maintaining our obligations for running our business," Stevens said. "This did not happen.
"For remote learning to work successfully, as many of you have seen, children need to have access to high-quality internet to partake, for our school district, in twice-weekly Google Classroom meetings, download assignments, engage with teachers for quick feedback, upload completed assignments and participate in chats for social and emotional health.
"As a parent, it is devastating to realize that, even with my best efforts, I cannot make this happen for my kids."
Colrain Central is not alone, and the teachers there and in rural areas are not immune to the issues of the "digital divide."
"The five towns in our district range from suburban to rural, and student access to broadband internet is therefore sharply uneven," said Billy Broaddus, a chemistry teacher at Hampshire Regional High School in Westhampton. "Even some of our teachers must travel away from home to access internet connections with enough bandwidth to present recordings of themselves teaching or to conduct Zoom meetings with relevant personnel and advise their students."
Broaddus said teachers submit their lesson plans and supporting material electronically a week in advance, and an administrator from the school makes hard copies and distributes them to as many as 70 students throughout the five-town district in time for the start of the following school week.
Broaddus, the president of Hampshire Regional's teachers union, characterized the efforts of the faculty as "Herculean" as they create differentiated remote learning plans for students of different abilities, maintain remote contact with their classes and chase down missed assignments among other things.
Looman likewise praised her teachers for adapting to teaching models for which they were not trained.
Colrain Central School Principal Amy Looman testifies before the Joint Committee on Education last week.
"Despite their commitment to education and their heroic attempts to convert to remote instruction virtually overnight, most teachers feel they are letting their students down," Looman said. "They're feeling ineffective and unsure how to provide the same caliber of education that they're able to do in the classroom."
The executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents backed up the testimony of Looman and the others about the connectivity issues in rural parts of the commonwealth.
"What I hear a lot is not the question of getting the device to [students], but what kind of support is there for them to be able to use those devices effectively," Tom Scott said. "That's been a real struggle for them. … For many of the Western Mass people, they continue to communicate to us it's very spotty in terms of some of the broadband problems that they have.
"Whether you have devices or don't have devices, some of this is just that connectivity is problematic for them. The idea of being able to have a statewide, online platform ... flipping the switch, having them do it at home, there are too many obstacles for them to be able to do it with great success."
Looman noted that while it is true that online instruction is not the only way to continue teaching when the school doors are locked, but it is a critical tool for 21st century instruction.
"I know that Commissioner [Jeffrey] Riley said earlier that remote learning doesn't have to equal online learning, and I understand that, and I appreciated him acknowledging that," Looman said. "But the reality is the experience that a student can have online interacting with a teacher and their peers is very different from getting a packet of worksheets and hard copy text to read.
"It's, again, not the same experience. Keep all of that in mind and recognize that the experience I have is different than even the experience at Hampshire Regional, and we're considered the remote districts."
Stevens' main concern is the experience for her elementary school-aged daughters.
"I do know, without hesitation, that our experience would look completely different with better access to basic, high quality infrastructure, such as high-speed internet," she said. "Would child meltdowns and frustration still occur with better internet? Absolutely. But at least my kids would be on the same level playing field as the rest of the kids in the state."