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When Schools Are Online but Students Aren’t

This past fall, marble notebooks and No. 2 pencils have been replaced on school supply lists by an internet-connecting device and Wi-Fi. Many schools, such as the Santa Fe Indian School (SFIS) in New Mexico, have resorted to some form of online learning to keep their communities safe and socially distanced. But these digital supplies have remained difficult to obtain for millions of students nationwide, including those at SFIS.

How many students? In September, 3.7 million households lacked internet access and 4.4 million lacked consistent access to a device, according to the Census Bureau’s “Household Pulse Survey.” At SFIS, an off-reservation tribal boarding school that closed its campus in March, more than four in 10 students do not have high-speed internet in their homes. Without it, students are at risk of falling behind.

The big picture: Rural Native American communities are one of the least digitally connected in the country and one of the hardest hit by the pandemic. In May 2020, the Navajo Nation suffered the highest infection rate in the country. SFIS serves students from the Navajo tribe, in addition to 19 Pueblo and two Apache tribes.

  • Close adherence to public health guidelines and strict safety measures flattened the curve by the fall, to the praise of Dr. Anthony Fauci, a top infectious-disease expert.
  • But schools including SFIS remain fully remote to ensure public health and safety. In these circumstances, connectivity remains the largest issue, said Kimball Sekaquaptewa, Chief Technology Director of SFIS.

“Without internet, devices can become paperweights,” Sekaquaptewa said. In the spring, the school found that its seniors were writing their capstone projects on their smartphones, while their school-issued devices sat unused beside them.

  • Mobile connectivity is not enough for hardline services such as education, and it does not meaningfully bridge the digital divide, according to the Pew Research Center. The school had to find other ways to ensure its students were connected.

COURSE OF ACTION: Set Up Hotspots, Own Broadband and Think Ahead

SFIS turned to public Wi-Fi access points and tribally owned broadband as an immediate solution.

Public Wi-Fi: Alongside the nonprofit IT Disaster Resource Center, the New Mexico Public Education Department and others, the school helped install scores of public Wi-Fi locations statewide. It’s been an especially important source of connection for SFIS students. Nearly three in 10 access the internet through public Wi-Fi spots, a school survey found.

“They have been a lifeline,” Sekaquaptewa said.

Tribal broadband: The school was also able to leverage a pre-pandemic broadband project – 120 miles of tribally owned and operated fiber optic networks, which connect libraries and schools across six pueblos.

  • Originally intended to enable videoconferencing capabilities for the purpose of language learning, the infrastructure now enables a much broader kind of remote learning.
  • The buildings are closed for health precautions, but students can still use the Wi-Fi from the parking lot. About two in 10 SFIS students access the internet there.

Still, connectivity remains an issue without internet at home, especially as colder months come and transportation issues get trickier. To this end, the school made sure it was able to accommodate all of its students by lessening its dependency on online learning, not increasing.

The high school adopted an asynchronous learning model, where learning exchanges do not need to take place in real time on a set schedule.

  • Students are required to be connected to the internet only to download assignments and upload completed work. Teachers upload instructional videos and can communicate through office hours. They both access files on and offline through a cloud-based storage platform.
  • For middle schoolers, there is some synchronous instruction in which students with connectivity can choose to join one of five sessions a week to interact with teachers via videoconference.

Yes, but: Though these solutions can alleviate short-term obstacles, they don’t get at the root of the digital divide, which predates the novel coronavirus. Residential access to high-speed internet is the next step to ensuring the SFIS community is connected for the long term. There must be a balance between addressing the immediate and the long haul, especially as the CARES Act funding deadline approaches.

“We just have to be creative and a little patient,” Sekaquaptewa said. “I know we’re not the only ones struggling.”

This article is an excerpt from GovLoop’s recent guide, “Resilience Lessons From State & Local Government.” Download the full guide here.

Photo credit: Kyle Gregory Devaras on Unsplash

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