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Bayfield, Ignacio students struggle with broadband access

School districts hope hot spots can help, but contracts are long and expensive
Bayfield High School student James Mars, 16, works during his biology class in December. Schools are closed because of the coronavirus. As students continue classes online, broadband access has become a bigger challenge for some students.

Nikki Boling and her three children don’t have broadband access at their home near Bear Creek Canyon northeast of Bayfield. For them, and more than 120 students in the Pine River Valley, online schooling has been difficult.

“There are quite a few of us in the Bayfield School District that are dealing with these internet issues,” Boling said. “Pretty much if you don’t live within the Forest Lakes subdivision or in the town of Bayfield, you have internet issues.”

Bayfield managed to secure 10 broadband hot spots to help struggling families this week, but cellular and broadband infrastructure challenges leave other students with few options.

Colorado schools are closed for the rest of the school year, and students have to continue online learning. Both the Bayfield and Ignacio school districts have tried to secure hot spots for weeks. They faced unrealistic service contracts and delays – and insufficient broadband infrastructure in rural areas around the country. While the school districts are offering other types of support, students can fall behind without access to the internet.

“For the kids who have the internet, we do Google Hangouts, Zoom, Dojo ... we have used all different methods to reach those kids,” said Rocco Fuschetto, Ignacio superintendent.

Students get virtual access to new lessons and regular “Hangout” hours with teachers.

But for students who don’t have sufficient internet? “They have to do a lot of it on their own. If they have questions, they have to contact the teacher by phone,” Fuschetto said.

About 20 Bayfield School District students in third through 12th grade, out of about 1,000 students, are reliant on paper packets because of insufficient broadband. The district exclusively uses paper packets for kindergarten through second grade.

The Ignacio School District estimates that 100 to 120 students, out of about 720 in kindergarten through 12th grade, are having issues with broadband and rely on paper packets. The district is not currently pursuing the hot-spot option, Fuschetto said.

“If we get to that point, yes, we will provide them,” Fuschetto said. “So far, I haven’t had any demand for it.”

Slow speeds

For the Boling family, their DSL service is overloaded, and they can’t get cellphone reception – hot spots won’t work. Two of Boling’s children are in middle school, which is not providing worksheet packets for students, Boling said. Her children were falling behind until her employer offered help.

“As of Monday, I am back in my office in Durango, with all three of my children with me so that they can access their Chromebooks on good internet,” she said.

Northwest of Bayfield and southwest of Ignacio, call performance is “bad” to “poor” through AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon, the three largest providers in the area, according to a coverage map by RootMetrics.

Service speeds are spotty and consistently slow for AT&T and T-Mobile customers. For example, download speeds vary from around 2 mbps to 57 mbps in Ignacio, depending on the service. In Bayfield, download speeds range from less than 1 mbps to 40 mbps, according to RootMetrics. Colorado considers broadband to be sufficient with speeds of 25 mbps or above.

Faced with infrastructure challenges, the school districts supported their students in other ways.

The districts loaned hundreds of Chromebooks to students. Teachers, guidance counselors and paraprofessionals are available by phone. Ignacio provides Wi-Fi in its parking lots, and Bayfield is setting up a parking-lot option near the Performing Arts Center.

“Who has time to drive their kids and their Chromebooks to the library parking lot or the school parking lot and sit there for hours while they do assignments?” Boling said, adding that other support has been great.

Finding a solution

When the districts looked into providing hot spots for students, they discovered that the providers required 12-month contracts and couldn’t provide hot spots until June or July.

“I’ve complained personally, even to the governor, that most of these companies want a yearlong contract on these hot spots,” said Kevin Aten, Bayfield superintendent.

In Ignacio, Fuschetto was counting on state-led efforts and federal funding, allotted for Colorado, to help with broadband access.

In Bayfield, staff focused on finding a month-to-month hot-spot service as soon as possible that could work for multiple cellphone companies – which they found through a third-party provider, DataLinks Networks, said Bill Bishop, Bayfield technology director. Each hot spot can serve up to 10 people and can be matched to the best service provider in each student’s area.

For Boling and her children, the office work-around is working for now.

“They’re getting caught up this week ... and it’ll be fairly simple moving forward now that I have access to my office. ... Not everybody has that,” she said.

smullane@durangoherald.com

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