Amidst pandemic, rural New York teachers struggle to access high-speed internet

By Sidnee King and Emine Yücel
Medill Reports

On a snowy day in mid-March, Sandra Wilkins had a meltdown in the parking lot of the Saranac Lake Free Library. Bundled in hats and mittens and cramped in a grey 2009 Honda Accord, Wilkins and her two children were racing to finish the day’s work while they still had reliable internet access. It had been weeks of sitting in the parking lot for WiFi, and Wilkins became overwhelmed as she helped her son and daughter with their online classes, all while trying to support her own students.

“I remember thinking this is not a professional work environment, and not conducive to my children’s learning,” Wilkins said. “I’m just trying to do my job and be a mom at the same time.”

Weeks later, they’ve traded their winter coats for t-shirts and sunglasses. The family still sits outside of the library three times a week, wondering how long they can sustain working from their car. Wilkins said she never expected the pandemic would keep her out of the classroom for so long.

The middle school special education teacher has taught in the Saranac Lake Central School District for 20 years. Now, she is raising a 12 and a 17-year-old in the same community she grew up in. But, the stresses of the coronavirus pandemic have led them to have vastly disparate experiences.

Since the pandemic forced Saranac to transition to distance learning, Wilkins’ entire family has struggled to manage their workload with limited broadband connection.

Wilkins needs reliable WiFi to upload videos of herself reading class materials for her students who have a hard time doing it themselves. But the family typically uses up all the high-speed internet their in-home plan allows within the first week of the month, meaning for the rest of the time, they have to strategize who gets access to WiFi. Wilkins either works late nights or splits her time between sitting in the library parking lot and taking limited trips to Saranac Middle School.

Sandra Wilkins’ 17-year-old daughter does her homework in the car. (Courtesy of Sandra Wilkins)

“I need help,” Wilkins said. “This is frustrating. I had to explain to my boss that sometimes I’m doing my schoolwork from seven to nine at night because I’m trying to allow [my kids] to use the internet during the day.”

As the coronavirus pandemic continues, students and parents are struggling to navigate distance learning. But the teachers charged with the task of supporting them face unique challenges.

In Saranac, New York — a small rural community of just over 4,000 — teachers union president Michele Bushey said the coronavirus pandemic exacerbated the lack of broadband access she’s spent a decade advocating to solve. Bushey said that at least 10% of teachers in each of the district’s four school buildings reported that unreliable internet connection is inhibiting their ability to teach.

“Teachers are thinking that they can’t provide the same level of instruction or do creative lessons with their students without the technology,” Bushey said. Bushey is worried that the digital divide, which keeps rural students at a disadvantage, will only grow wider as COVID-19 keeps students and teachers at home.

Saranac is among hundreds of rural school systems in New York with limited access to broadband in comparison to their suburban and urban counterparts. “In New York’s rural areas, broadband connections rarely get out into where people live, where there may be only one house every few square miles,” said David Little, executive director of the Rural Schools Association.

When Wilkins first began teaching from home, she reached out to learn how much she’d need to pay to bring high-speed internet to her area. After being told it could cost as much as $30,000, Wilkins cast the idea aside and looked to her district’s administrators for support.

With limited funds, Saranac Lake Central School District has been unable to loan out hotspots to all of the teachers who need them. According to district officials, to provide just one teacher with a hotspot costs over $200 in addition to another $14 per gigabyte of data.

“We just don’t have the budget,” said Bushey, who represents 178 teachers. “And now we’re looking at laying off some of our teachers because of it.”

Similar to Wilkins, many Saranac teachers did not expect online instruction to last so long. Without hotspots, teachers have been relying on their phones, visiting relatives’ homes, and even sneaking into their classrooms for high-speed internet.

Heather Tedford’s fifth grade students have a running joke. At the start of every Zoom class, they tease, “Where are you today Mrs. Tedford?”

Tedford spent weeks sitting on the sidewalk outside of Saranac High School’s computer lab. She’d used up her 50 GB DISH Satellite plan within two weeks of remote teaching. When the 52-year-old called the company for help, they only offered her an additional 1 GB of high-speed internet for free. “I would have used that up in twenty minutes,” she said.

Though administrators have pooled their resources to keep their employees supported the best they can, some teachers are already burned out. Bushey said that she’s seen nine teachers in her union retire unexpectedly since the pandemic struck. David Little said this might just be the beginning.

“You’re going to get teachers that are older, who are not as tech-savvy, and are very frustrated with this if it keeps up,” said Little. “If they think this is the way I’ve got to do this for the next year, and they’re at retirement age, they may decide to retire rather than continue.”

Little emphasized that teachers are not trained to educate through a computer. “In the classroom, it’s so much easier to motivate kids, give immediate positive feedback and keep them encouraged,” Bushey said. “They respond when they’re in our presence but not so much in remote instruction.”

As school systems face the uncertainty of not knowing when they may reopen, experts like Little are preparing for the worst. He said, due to the pandemic, the state might have to make drastic cuts to the education budget, which could push reopening schools further back.

Wilkins said this may negatively affect her son, who has grown more restless as the pandemic keeps him from interacting with his schoolmates. The 7th grader loves playing football and soccer. Being forced to stay inside has caused weeks of frustration that inhibit his learning. “There’s a heightened sense of emotion in these moments,” Wilkins said. “We have good days and bad days. But you have to learn to adapt to everyone’s needs.”

Led by Bushey, several teachers in the Saranac Teachers Association have reached out to local officials in hopes that their district and others like it will get state funding to assuage connectivity issues.

In a letter penned to New York State Assemblyman Billy Jones, Wilkins urged state officials to prioritize solving lapses in rural broadband. “I understand this issue may not be at the top of your list,” Wilkins wrote. “What I do hope though, is that, when this is all over, our government officials can advocate for better access to the internet for our rural areas.”

New York State does have existing programs intended to incentivize internet providers to invest in rural communities. The New NY Broadband Program was established by Governor Andrew Cuomo in 2015. The $500 million dollar investment — the largest state investment for broadband expansion in the nation at the time — provides state funding to projects that promise to deliver high-speed internet to underserved cities like Saranac.

According to Michael J. Santorelli, director of the Advanced Communications Law and Policy Institute at the New York Law School, most rural areas in the country remain without broadband connection because they are very expensive to serve. Internet providers are more attracted to densely populated areas like New York City because of the abundance of potential customers. In more sparsely populated cities like Saranac, the customer base is much smaller, making big providers hesitant to invest. “It’ll take [companies] many years to make back their investment if they even make it back in the first place,” Santorelli said.

As rural educators await action from state officials, school districts near Saranac are getting creative to help. Beekmantown Central School District has been placing school buses in the parking lots of local businesses as hotspots so that teachers can access WiFi from their cars. Saranac residents are making the twenty-minute drive to Beekmantown to take advantage of the reliable internet the school buses provide.

“This is a whole new world,” said Tedford. “People don’t have the access they need to be truly successful in this learning environment.”

There is still uncertainty nationwide on whether or not remote teaching will continue in the fall. And though teachers across the country will be restricted to their homes, the geographic disadvantages in rural areas persist in maintaining the digital divide.

“Saranac is so scenic and rural and beautiful. It’s what I love about my area,” Bushey said. And while she understands that what she loves most about Saranac raises the cost of bringing high-speed internet to the community, she deems it unacceptable that rural teachers bear the brunt of systemic inequalities. “We’re going to have to address this as a nation,” she said.

The Saranac Teachers Association executive board meets weekly, strategizing to ensure teachers have a comprehensive plan for the next school year in case remote teaching continues. “We’ll look back and really learn from this,” Bushey said. “You always have to think, ‘Is there a better way to do this?’”

Saranac’s academic year will be coming to an end on June 18. Despite the challenges incurred this year, teachers of Saranac remain hopeful that, whether classrooms are digital or in-person, they’ll continue to connect with students in a meaningful way.

“We have a really big group of educators that are all out there supporting each other and have the same kind of outlook,” Wilkins said. “We’re all just here trying to support kids and do the best that we can with what we have been given.”

Sidnee King and Emine Yücel are social justice reporters based in Chicago. You can follow them on Twitter at @kingg_sid and @emineirmakyucel.

Photo at top: Since the pandemic forced Saranac to transition to distance learning, teachers struggle to manage their workload with limited broadband connection. (Photo from Adobe Stock)