| Rochester Democrat and Chronicle
Rochester family takes on remote learning as a team — at one table
Zumarie Sepulveda describes how turning their family dining room into a classroom for their five school-aged kids who are remote learning has worked.
At this time last year, the Rochester City School District thought it had finally found a way to ensure that its students had reliable internet access to do their schoolwork at home.
It distributed about 10,000 MiFi hot spot devices with 10 gigabytes of data each — plenty, in theory, for a few hours of work after school each night.
“They were meant to be a supplemental use in addition to school or library connectivity,” RCSD Executive Director of Instructional Technology Glen VanDerwater said. “Of course, then, March 13 hit.”
March 13 was the last day of in-person classes before COVID-19 turned education on its head. Now, those MiFi devices are serving as the primary portal to education, not as a supplement.
By no fault of the district’s, the situation has proven deeply inadequate.
About half of students are exceeding the 10 GB data limit before the end of their monthly cycle, VanDerwater estimated. At that point their speed is reduced from 4G to 3G, which in some parts of the city is insufficient bandwidth to stream live Zoom classes and do online assignments.
“Some students are getting down to almost AOL dial-up speed,” VanDerwater said.
From 1Million to 10Million
Further complicating matters, the 1Million Project Foundation, the non-profit affiliate of Sprint that provided the MiFi devices, is now being phased out after the Sprint and T-Mobile merger.
It is being replaced by T-Mobile’s Project 10Million — which, contrary to its title, does not represent a tenfold improvement.
The number of devices that RCSD receives will be a percentage of T-Mobile’s allotment to New York state, meaning that some students in need may not receive one. Devices now will be distributed per household, not per student, and will have an annual (school year) data cap of 100 GB instead of 10 GB per month.
When students exceed their data usage, the school district must pay $15 per month for them to continue with unlimited data. That could in theory mean hundreds of thousands of dollars a month for the cash-strapped district.
RCSD has not yet been accepted into the 10Million Project but has submitted an application. It is now talking with Monroe County, the city of Rochester and local foundations about funding.
“Obviously with RCSD’s budget challenge, we’ll need philanthropic support to move those hot spots to unlimited,” VanDerwater said. “It’s got to happen within the next couple of weeks… We really do have some momentum going with remote learning, and while it’s not ideal, we don’t want to lose any of that momentum.”
The other best option, he said, would be paying Spectrum $30 a month per student. But that would require having homes wired for internet, a massive logistical hurdle considering students’ mobility and the high rate of rentals versus homeownership.
Spectrum’s free 60-day offer is available only to families who are not yet customers and automatically converts to a paid service after the promotional period.
Aside from the hot spots, RCSD also has distributed about 26,000 Chromebook computers to its students since the pandemic hit, VanDerwater said.
In a community where poverty and educational need rises sharply at the city line, the issue of lacking internet connectivity is predictable. The district estimated last year that six in 10 students lacked reliable internet at home.
In normal times, that was a major inconvenience. Students reported typing out college admissions essays on their cell phones or huddling outside Starbucks cafes to finish their homework.
Now, with the district pursuing an entirely remote model, it is untenable.
“The pandemic is exposing the limitations that our families are facing,” said Monroe County Legislator Rachel Barnhart, who serves on an informal working group that is looking to address the “digital divide,” as it’s known.
“It’s frustrating the district has to jump through all these hoops to get universal broadband service for its students,” she said. “This is showing how hard it is to solve the digital divide and why we need longer-term solutions.”