Ambitious plan aims to provide online access to thousands of city students

For the first weeks after the coronavirus pushed Indianapolis to close down school buildings, Azah Gillespy’s 5-year-old son worked on assignments that came by mail.

The family didn’t have high-speed internet at home, so her kindergartner wouldn’t be able to join his teacher and classmates on the video lessons his school began holding each day.

Even though she was losing hours at her job packing FedEx shipments because of the shutdowns, Gillespy soon decided the family needed Wi-Fi so her son could do schoolwork. But the cost was out of reach: AT&T required a $250 deposit, she said, plus $75.99 per month.

“It’s not right that kids have to suffer because their parents are trying to make ends meet,” said Gillespy, who eventually got help paying for Wi-Fi. “I had to call my mom—like, ‘Ma, I need $250. I gotta get Wi-Fi.’ “

During the coronavirus outbreak, U.S. schools are using online instruction more than ever before. Affluent suburban districts quickly shifted to virtual teaching, sometimes hosting regular classes by video each day. But a lot of students simply don’t have the reliable, high-speed internet access they need to participate. The problem is a particular concern in Indiana, where about 150,000 children lack access to the internet, according to the 2018 American Community Survey.

After years of neglect, the coronavirus pandemic is drawing attention to gaps in urban access—and sparking new interest in ensuring students have broadband for school work. In Indianapolis, an ambitious proposal would create a citywide cellular network for students, an idea that could improve educational opportunities long after the pandemic. But as local communities and school systems struggle to piece together plans, long-term solutions could take months.

In Indiana, internet affordability has long gotten less focus than expanding broadband to new communities. State policymakers have devoted years—last year granting $28 million in incentives—to expanding broadband access in rural areas, with mixed success. Indiana officials have had no clear strategy, however, for increasing the number of broadband subscriptions in wired communities where fees can be unaffordable for low-income families.

During the pandemic, several internet providers have created new programs offering temporary, free service to some families. Yet while politicians and media coverage in other U.S. cities have successfully pressured companies to remove restrictive policies on those programs, the plans remain inaccessible to many financially challenged Indiana families.

Gillespy said she was not aware of internet deals when she signed up. AT&T offers a service plan for low-income families that does not require a deposit or charge installation fees, said company spokesman Jim Kimberly, but customers have to sign up through a specific website or phone number.

Educators say limited internet access poses one of the most significant barriers to remote instruction.

“Education is supposed to be the ultimate equalizer,” said Nicole Fama, who leads the Phalen Leadership Academies middle and high school on the far eastside of Indianapolis. “When we’re not giving our kids the same resources as kids who live in a different zip code, we’re not really giving them the same opportunities.”

Why it’s so hard for some students to get connected

When school buildings closed, the Pike Township district in Indianapolis began offering two kinds of education. Students with internet access could attend class by video, practice math facts online, and tour museums virtually. Meanwhile, hundreds of students without reliable internet instead had to work through paper booklets and keep in touch with teachers by phone.

“The reality is that you can’t replicate what you can do with a device and internet,” said Flora Reichanadter, superintendent of the 11,000-student district, where more than 70% of children come from low-income families. “We are living in a have and have-not world right now.”

Before the pandemic, students without internet access at home could still get online by staying late after school, going to the library or visiting other public spaces with free internet, like McDonald’s. Now, those options are off the table, and the divide between students is stark.

Some of the state’s poorest school districts seem to be disproportionately affected by limited access. Fewer than half of households who live in the deeply troubled Gary school district have wired, high-speed internet, according to data from the 2018 American Community Survey. And the former industrial communities of Richmond and Anderson also lag behind the state average of about 63% of households with home broadband subscriptions.

For someone who regularly uses computers and internet at home, it can seem surprising that many families living in cities don’t subscribe. But getting broadband can be expensive. And if you use your phone just to browse online and for social media, it may not seem like an essential expense.

Indianapolis middle-school teacher Michelle Smith, who works in Perry Township, bristles at the suggestion that students can access their lessons by phone. She blew through her own cell phone data in two days helping families look up resources or get signed up for internet deals. “The cost is prohibitive for most, if not all of our families,” Smith said.

Wired broadband is also often relatively expensive. Many areas only have one or two providers offering the fastest internet speed, according to data from the Federal Communications Commission. But unlike gas and electric utilities, internet prices are unregulated. Without competition driving down prices, the median cost of internet in the U.S. is $66 per month, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis of bills.

As a short-term solution to get students online, schools have aggressively promoted free or low-cost internet deals that are being offered by providers such as Comcast, Spectrum, and AT&T. But getting access to those programs can be challenging. Undocumented immigrants may be reluctant to sign up for service that asks for a Social Security number, and some providers block families from deals if they have past-due bills.

Even for parents who are eligible, signing up isn’t always easy. Companies may have long wait times, lack customer service representatives who speak a parent’s primary language, or charge unexpected fees.

After a mother told Fama, the Phalen principal, that she wasn’t able to get the internet, the veteran educator decided to set up a three-way call to sign up. The family didn’t owe the cable company any money, but the mother was told she would need to pay an equipment fee because she had bad credit, Fama said. “When people are struggling to buy food, it’s not in the budget to buy a router or modem or a laptop,” she said.

During the crisis, internet providers say they have worked hard to expand access for low-income families. In addition to offering promotions, they have also opened up hot spots, increased speeds, lifted data caps, and suspended disconnections for customers who are unable to pay due the crisis.

“We have been long committed to bridging the digital divide and trying to get people connected long before COVID-19,” said Joni Hart, executive director of the Indiana Cable and Broadband Association. “We know that there’s still a lot of work to do and too many remain unconnected to this important resource right now.”

In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio excoriated providers for denying free deals to some parents, leading to changes in company policies. But Hoosiers leaders have been more muted. When asked last month about internet connectivity, Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb said he hadn’t received requests for companies to grant free internet access to families with past due bills.

Students without internet access can rely on other educational resources, he said.

Holcomb’s spokeswoman, Rachel Hoffmeyer, said he is applying for funding through the federal CARES Act to improve “our quality and readiness for future remote learning.” Hoffmeyer added that Holcomb’s office plans to share more details “in the coming weeks.”

Could Indianapolis be blanketed in wireless for students?

Many school districts have responded to the crisis by pursuing the quickest solution to expand access — giving students wireless hot spots. But in Indianapolis, where about three out of five households have wired broadband, leaders have raised the tantalizing possibility that they may pursue a city-wide internet network they say could benefit students long after they are able to return to school buildings.

“COVID-19 has exposed what has been a long-standing issue,” said Claire Fiddian-Green, president of the Richard M. Fairbanks Foundation, one of the groups behind a Marion County e-learning fund to respond to the crisis, which supports 11 school districts and dozens of charter schools. (The Fairbanks Foundation also supports Chalkbeat.)

“We shouldn’t be thinking just short term,” she said. “We should be thinking — what do we actually need to help support good access to educational options in our communities?”

Wi-Fi hot spots can help solve the problem quickly, but they could carry costly ongoing fees. That’s why the fund sought proposals for a private cellular network, which would be similar to ones created for private businesses or universities, said Paul Mitchell, CEO of Energy Systems Network, who is advising the e-learning fund on technical options. Under that option, students would likely still need to have a tablet or computer that connects to cellular networks or a hot spot to get service, but the ongoing costs could be lower.

There are a few ways to create a network. One would be to use service from a traditional cellular company, such as Verizon or AT&T, essentially purchasing dedicated data for school children. Another option could be for districts in Marion County to use the fiber cable that already provide internet to many campuses, including those in Indianapolis Public Schools, Mitchell said. Schools could be used as hubs with towers that broadcast cellular signals for students in the surrounding areas.

It’s still uncertain whether the fund will pursue a private network or how much it might cost, since proposals were due this week. But if Indianapolis is able to find a way to foot the bill for student internet going forward, it could provide a model for other school systems.

“This should be something that has a long term sustainable business model,” Mitchell said. Whether the pandemic keeps students at home or families become accustomed to remote instruction, he added, “we may be in an environment where there’s some blended model of more e-learning for years to come.”

Where school leaders may find the funding

Without city- or community-wide plans, school districts are cobbling together solutions with grants and charity. But they are hoping for ongoing state or federal funding.

Schools will likely rely on the first wave of coronavirus relief funds to pay for technology. Through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, emergency federal dollars could also be used to install Wi-Fi or provide devices for students living in public housing. But leaders are looking for sustainable funding streams to provide long-term service.

In Jay County, a rural community along the Ohio border where fewer than half of households have wired broadband, the school district is paying for internet installation, equipment, and subscriptions for about 70 families that aren’t connected yet.

The program is funded by local philanthropy for now, said Superintendent Jeremy Gulley. But he hopes to find another way to pay for it long term. Like many school districts in Indiana, Jay already provides Chromebooks to all of its students. Parents are charged a rental fee for the devices, and if they are low-income, the state offsets the cost. That’s an approach Gulley suggested could be adapted to pay for internet service.

“This is a well established model in Indiana,” Gulley said. “We started out with textbook rental. Then they opened it up where you could consider a device a textbook. I think the next horizon is taking this model into internet access for those families that are on free and reduced-price lunch.”

Another source of money many education leaders are looking to is the federal E-rate program, which provides funding for internet connectivity for public schools. The latest Democratic Congressional proposal to respond to the coronavirus would add $1.5 billion to E-rate for schools to be used for devices such as Wi-Fi hot spots and routers for students.

Currently, E-rate funding is not available to fund home internet access for students. But if the government loosened restrictions, it could be crucial for funding a private network for Indianapolis students, said Mitchell, the adviser to the e-learning fund. Educators, including IPS Superintendent Aleesia Johnson, have called on the Federal Communications Commission to allow schools to use E-rate funding to help students get broadband at home.

If local, state, or federal organizations don’t ensure that students have internet access, yet another burden is placed on the most vulnerable families, Johnson said.

“We are putting the onus on families who in most cases are already disproportionately feeling the impact of this crisis because they are no longer able to work or from a health standpoint,” said Johnson, pointing to data showing that black people are particularly hard hit by the coronavirus. “ ‘We’re saying to them — ‘it’s on you to figure this out.’ “

Since internet access has become so crucial to education, Indianapolis mother Lena Dickerson believes the government needs to step in to help. Her first-grade daughter’s school doesn’t offer robust online lessons since so few families have internet access at home, so instead she does paper packets and one-on-one reading lessons with her teacher over the phone.

“Every child enrolled in school needs to have a device with internet,” Dickerson said. “I just feel like that needs to come from a state level or maybe even a federal level.”

Chalkbeat is a not-for-profit news site covering educational change in public schools.

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