Rural broadband and remote learning

HARLEM VALLEY — Local students who found internet access a challenge long before the coronavirus pandemic hit now find lack of reliable broadband a barrier to their education, as they are now attending classes remotely as school buildings remain closed during the health crisis. 

Pine Plains town Supervisor Darrah Cloud said broadband access is the first question potential buyers ask when visiting Pine Plains, and its absence is a hindrance to the town’s economic development, as well as to student success. 

Pine Plains has a Broadband Committee looking into improving internet access. Although New York State has designated Dutchess County as “completely served” with internet access, Cloud said this is not the case. 

“That is an error in the logic in the internet companies and the Federal Communications Commission [FCC] and they made this error because of the way they did their calculation of who had it and who didn’t,” she said, “and because of that, a lot of people don’t have internet or internet at all, and it’s literally on the FCC and the internet companies.”

She charges the issue is “all about the money,” in her Aug. 7 e-newsletter. “To me, it is a class issue, because it’s all about money and who can afford what, and it shouldn’t be — it should be everybody’s right.” 

Cloud said it’s up to congressional leaders, both on the state and federal levels, to pass a law to upgrade local municipal service and treat internet as a necessity for every household. In the meantime, the Broadband Committee has created a survey on Survey Monkey to determine which Pine Plains households don’t have internet access or can’t afford the internet. Open through Tuesday, Sept. 22, the survey is online at www.pineplains-ny.gov; on the “Pine Plains Town Hall” Facebook page; and at the library and Town Hall.

In terms of what the town of Amenia is doing to address rural broadband, Amenia town Supervisor Victoria Perotti reported it is negotiating its franchise agreement with Optimum for more high-quality internet access to its residents.

“They’re the only broadband provider we have now, which is a problem for rural areas,” Perotti said, “not only for watching your favorite television shows but also for schoolwork and communication.”

Perotti said, “[Broadband has] a big impact on them; if they can’t depend on the one cable service provider that we have here, it’s very difficult for them to run a business or attend school or do what they need to.”

Sparsely-populated, rural areas have their disadvantages, Perotti said, as service providers don’t want invest money on infrastructure for broadband. 

With classes scheduled to start this week, Harlem Valley school districts have been dealing with the challenges of securing high-quality internet service for students. Given that many schools have opted to reopen using a remote instruction or hybrid model, having reliable internet is critical for students to keep up with their studies.

“There are definitely concerns,” Webutuck Superintendent of Schools Raymond Castellani said. “It’s a challenge for us, it becomes an equity issue that students that don’t have the internet access.”

Castellani added that the North East (Webutuck) Central School District has been fortunate to provide families with mobile hot spots to connect online, but it gets costly and has put the equity issue at the forefront. 

Mentors have been assigned to students and their families to check on their progress, and the district is bringing in students who have been identified as high-risk, such as the English as a Second Language students and students with disabilities.

In the Pine Plains Central School District, Director of Curriculum and Instruction Brian Timm conducted a survey this spring to learn the number of families with internet access. Superintendent of Schools Martin Handler reported that about 20 or so households are without adequate internet access. 

Handler remarked that “each residence requires a different solution,” and “if the family has financial need, the district will pay for basic internet service.”

Since the outbreak of COVID-19, Cloud said the town’s college students — many of whom don’t have internet access at home — have been using the local library to connect to WiFi. When the library closed due to the pandemic, students were left with few alternatives; some Cloud saw sitting in their cars writing papers with their cell phones.

“It’s an absolute necessity, especially during a pandemic when the only way kids can do their schoolwork is on the internet,” she said, “so the FCC and all the internet companies have really failed us… I’m furious at internet companies and I’m furious at Congress for not figuring it out a long time ago.”

It seems state officials are starting to recognize the adverse impact that poor internet access has on local students who need to learn — especially now, during the pandemic. In her fight to increase access to reliable internet service, New York State Senator Sue Serino (R-41) stated her intention last week to call on Governor Andrew Cuomo to immediately suspend the fiber optic tax in high-need rural communities, which she claims significantly increases costs and disincentives broadband development.

“Access to high-speed broadband has never been more essential,” Serino stated on Thursday, Sept. 3. “Now, more than ever, we have to do all that we can to swiftly get high-speed broadband to these underserved areas to ensure students can effectively participate in remote learning and workers can participate in a remote economy.”

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