Why hotspots and internet deals still leave thousands of Colorado students disconnected from school

Boy participates in a video lesson on his laptop in a learning center.
Justin Castilla connects to his remote classroom from a child care program at Newlon Elementary School in Denver this week. (David Zalubowski/AP)

When COVID-19 hit, the internet became an essential school supply. Districts in the Denver metro area scrambled to meet the need, collectively spending more than $1 million in the past five months to buy mobile hotspots and pay families’ internet bills so children could learn. Philanthropies and foundations have spent even more.

But the effort hasn’t been enough. Tens of thousands of Colorado students still don’t have internet access at a time when half of students statewide are starting the school year virtually, and those taking classes in person may have to move online on short notice. 

Even families who have gotten connected say the low-cost or temporary options often touted as a solution to bridge Colorado’s gaping digital divide can be slow and unreliable. And the cost of high-speed internet is just one barrier. Other problems include geography and infrastructure, and not just for rural Coloradans.

“Out here, internet can be shaky at best,” said Zuton Lucero-Mills, a mother of five who lives in the Green Valley Ranch neighborhood in far northeast Denver.

Some lawmakers, superintendents, and education advocates are calling for a fundamental shift in the way Colorado thinks about internet access, arguing it should be treated less like a luxury and more like a public utility. But such a shift would take time and money. And until it happens, many families — often low-income families of color — face difficult choices.

Tamika Aumiller has been on a waiting list for a hotspot since March. A single mother who works nights stocking groceries, Aumiller said she can’t afford home internet. When Denver schools shifted to remote learning in the spring, Aumiller had to send her 6-year-old daughter Addy to live with her parents 45 minutes away in Park County. Aumiller’s only source of internet, her cell phone, wasn’t enough to support Addy’s online kindergarten.

But even that situation wasn’t ideal: Addy’s grandparents are not tech savvy and their internet service was spotty. Whenever it crashed, Aumiller had to relay the message to Addy’s teacher, who would mail her packets of worksheets. Aumiller would then take photos of Addy’s completed work and send them to the teacher. Addy’s grandmother would make voice recordings of the girl reading out loud and send those to the teacher, too.

“It was a disaster,” Aumiller said.

And Aumiller feared it would happen again. Three days before school was scheduled to start online in Denver this week, she was still waiting for a hotspot from the district. So she made a difficult decision, one that will temporarily separate her from her daughter: She filled out paperwork to register Addy for school in Park County, where classes are being held in person. 

Addy got in. She starts first grade there on Monday.

“My biggest worry is that she’s going to get behind in school,” Aumiller said. “With the way remote learning went last year, they had to pass everybody. I don’t want her to just skate through because they have to pass people. I want her to learn the things she needs to learn.”

Stop-gap solutions

As schools across Colorado shifted to online learning in March and April, a survey conducted by the state education department and the Colorado Education Initiative found that about 53,000 Colorado students lacked a computer or tablet. Even more students — nearly 66,000 — didn’t have internet access at home, the statewide survey found. U.S. Census data suggests the number of households without reliable internet in Colorado could be much higher.

In the past five months, the number of students without a computer has shrunk, as school districts rushed to order devices in bulk and distribute them to kids in need.

But experts fear the number of students without internet access has actually grown. And the reasons why touch on societal problems that are not as easy for school districts to fix — and business decisions by private companies that school districts don’t control.

If a parent loses their job and can no longer pay their internet bill, or if an internet company’s free offer expires, the solution isn’t as simple as buying the family a single device like a computer. It’s a matter of finding a way to pay for a sustained service.

“In 2020, broadband internet is not an option; it’s an essential service for living,” said Denver Public Schools Superintendent Susana Cordova. “This moment has revealed that reliable internet access at home is as vital as power and running water.”

In the absence of a long-term solution, school districts have deployed stopgap measures. Many have bought and distributed hundreds, or even thousands, of internet hotspots, which are pocket-sized devices that use cell phone service to establish a Wi-Fi connection.

But the districts quickly discovered that hotspots don’t always work. In southern Colorado’s San Luis Valley, Centennial School District Superintendent Toby Melster said the surrounding mountains often block the signal. Although his district received a donation of 50 hotspots, he estimates that about 30% of the district’s 200 students still aren’t connected.

For those who are, the connection can be tenuous. One family made an X with tape on their countertop to signify the one place in the house where the hotspot got a signal, he said.

Other families, both rural and urban, have run into a different problem. Hotspot signals are often not strong enough to support multiple siblings doing Zoom calls or uploading homework assignments at the same time. Sometimes the hotspots don’t work at all.

That’s what happened to Maria Rojas’ oldest daughter in the spring. When the hotspot provided by her Denver high school failed to connect, Rojas’ daughter began doing her schoolwork on her cell phone. But she wasn’t able to complete all of her assignments that way.

“She had kind of a nervous breakdown,” said Rojas, a parent leader with the community organization Together Colorado. “All she would do is cry and cry, and I had no idea how to help her. She had been one of the most high-achieving students in her class, always getting awards, and she went to being a student who couldn’t turn in assignments.”

Rojas eventually connected her daughter with a psychologist who is still helping the family.

‘It takes all of us’

Internet service providers — some of them multibillion-dollar corporations — have the power to provide more permanent solutions. With persistent prodding from parents, teachers, and community groups, a few have made strides in that direction. 

Comcast is one of the primary internet providers in the Denver metro area. It has for years offered a discounted program called Internet Essentials. In March, as the pandemic unfolded, Comcast announced it would make that program, usually $9.95 per month, free for two months.

But some families still faced big barriers. Initially the company denied services to those with unpaid debt. Undocumented families shied away when the application prominently asked for a Social Security number. And families who did get service said the connection was slow.

Nallely Antúnez Gonzalez had Internet Essentials in the spring. Sometimes her 7-year-old daughter would do her schoolwork online, only to find it all erased when it failed to upload.

“It was like starting over from zero,” Antúnez Gonzalez said. “I would have to explain to her that she had to do it again, and it was really hard for her.”

Coloradans for the Common Good, a group of labor unions and faith communities, set out to change that. They met several times with Comcast executives, telling the stories of parents, teachers, and school social workers struggling to connect families with the internet — and inviting media to cover their extensive advocacy efforts.

The strategy worked. Comcast extended the timeline for its free internet offer and made it clearer that families could use alternative forms of ID. 

“That’s an example of what organized people can do,” said Joyce Brooks of the Colorado NAACP and a member of Coloradans for the Common Good. “But now we have entered a new school year. We still have much work to do to close this digital divide.”

The group hasn’t let up. On Wednesday, Coloradans for the Common Good hosted a virtual summit on internet access in education. Panelists included school district officials and representatives from Comcast, as well as hotspot vendors Verizon and T-Mobile.

The organization was direct: Would the companies be willing to work with them to increase access to high-speed internet? All three said yes. But Brent Cooper, the senior manager for government with T-Mobile, said it would take every internet service provider working together, along with municipalities willing to host cell phone towers, to truly solve the digital divide. 

“How do you create universal access?” Cooper said. “Well, guess what? It takes all of us.”

Another big internet service provider in Colorado, CenturyLink, didn’t attend the summit. Unlike Comcast, CenturyLink doesn’t offer any free internet. Instead, a company spokesperson pointed to CenturyLink’s participation in the federal Lifeline program, which trims up to $9.25 from a family’s monthly bill.

That could still leave the internet out of reach for many families.

Searching for a signal

Advocates envision municipal broadband as a long-term solution to Colorado’s internet problem. Instead of residents buying internet from private companies like CenturyLink and Comcast, they would get internet service from their city or town, just like they do trash or water.

A 2005 state law banned local governments from providing their residents with high-speed internet without voter approval. In the 15 years since, more than 100 municipalities have voted to opt out of the law. Denver voters will consider whether to do the same in November.

But opting out of the law is only the first step. Building a broadband network takes time and money. The city of Longmont, roughly 40 miles northwest of Denver, began exploring the idea in 1996. Eighteen years and a $45 million bond issue later, Longmont signed up its first customers for a city service called NextLight, which offers fast internet at competitive prices.

Now nearly 60% of households in Longmont get their internet service from NextLight, said Executive Director Valerie Dodd. So does the St. Vrain Valley School District. And for low-income families, Longmont has a program called Sharing the NextLight that provides free home internet service to those whose children qualify for subsidized school meals.

Families must reapply every school year, and Dodd said about 40 have signed up so far this fall. She expects that number to grow; there is funding for as many as 100 more families.

Longmont’s municipal broadband hasn’t completely solved the St. Vrain Valley School District’s digital divide, though. The district is bigger than just Longmont. According to a spokesperson, St. Vrain has spent several thousand dollars on 100 hotpots and got a grant for 250 more, which are earmarked for families experiencing homelessness. The district’s foundation is also spending up to $60 per family to cover the cost of six months of internet service.

But no matter how much money school districts have spent on short-term solutions, leaders say it isn’t enough. While Denver has reduced the percentage of families without internet access from 8% in the spring to 4% this fall, that still leaves about 3,600 families unconnected.

The percentage of students without internet in the wealthier suburban districts of Cherry Creek and Adams 12 is lower: about 2%, according to spokespeople for those districts. 

In suburban districts with higher concentrations of poverty, more families are unconnected. As of a month ago in the small Adams 14 school district, 278 students — about 4% of enrollment — indicated they didn’t have reliable internet access at home, a spokesperson said.

Graciela Rocha heads one of those families. A single mom of an 8-year-old daughter, Rocha faced a tough choice: Bring her daughter to work at the Commerce City hair salon she owns, where her mobile hotspot isn’t strong enough to support remote classes, or rearrange her work schedule so she can be with her daughter at home, where the signal is stronger.

Rocha chose the latter. That means she works seven days a week: every weekday afternoon after her daughter’s classes are over and 13- or 14-hour days on the weekends.

“I have to take some pay cuts to be able to be fully present,” she said.

It’s a sacrifice Rocha is willing to make to ensure her daughter gets a good education. But now that the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the necessity of internet access for all, advocates hope it’s also one that Rocha and other parents won’t have to make again.

Yesenia Robles and Erica Meltzer contributed to this story.

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