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Transition To Remote Learning Exposes Lack Of Internet Access In Parts Of Maine

On Tuesday, the Maine Department of Education told schools that it was recommending they prepare to end in-person classes for the rest of the school year, in an effort to limit the spread of COVID-19.

The closures have forced students, teachers and families to move from in-person classes to "remote learning" at home in just a few weeks. The transition has challenged districts and exposed the lack of internet access in many parts of the state.

After schools across the state were first asked to end in-person classes nearly a month ago, Caribou High School teacher Vaughn McLaughlin turned a room in his home in rural Fort Fairfield into a makeshift music classroom.

McLaughlin video chats with one of his students for a 20-minute private trumpet lesson — one of dozens of individual and group sessions he holds every week. He says it is a way for him to keep up with his students' musical progress — but also make sure they're okay.

“Just emotionally, because this is a train wreck for a senior in high school,” he says. “It's really hard for them. Because we're looking at kids, they're not going to get a graduation. They're just gonna miss out on a whole bunch of things. That's really disappointing to them.”

McLaughlin says the technology has also been a challenge. With limited internet access in Aroostook County and a laptop provided by the school, the classes have routinely crashed in the middle of lessons.

“We're abusing these things. I mean, I'm on video all day. And the other part of the equation, of course, is, I'm on a network at home. I don't live in town. So I'm not on, like, a super fast network. My WiFi is shot off a tower, and then, I don't have near the upload and download speeds that everybody else has. And we got lots of kids in that situation. But I think we're making the most of it.”

“Some of the perils that we've found, right off, were no different than the rest of Maine,” RSU 39 superintendent Tim Doak says. “I think it's the whole WiFi issue, connectivity.”

Doak says that while he's been impressed at how teachers have moved their classes online, the drawbacks have become clear as the closure has dragged on. Broadband access has been a challenge, he says, and certain students are struggling with the new model as families deal with the far-reaching impacts of the pandemic.

“We found out real quick, who doesn't have the connectivity, and how do we solve it? I think it also shows us that Maine is in dire need of broadband, for telemedicine, small businesses and, of course, schools throughout the state of Maine.”

A survey by the Maine Department of Education answered by about two-thirds of principals found that more than 8,000 students and educators say they don't have internet access at home. Through donations, the Department acquired 500 new mobile WiFi hotspot devices that are being distributed to schools in Piscataquis County, the county that surveys indicate has the lowest rate of broadband access.

Commissioner Pender Makin says the Department is also looking to move around money in its budget and is working with other state agencies to negotiate and help schools purchase hotspots.

In the meantime, many districts are finding their own solutions. Bangor School superintendent Betsy Webb says the district is raising money to purchase 350 mobile hotspots that will allow students to maintain connections with teachers.

“I had tears in my eyes,” says Webb. “I saw two four-year old twins, singing with a pre-K teacher through a video chat. And to see the pure joy on those four-year old's faces, that their teacher was going to connect with them today. And they just sang the song...it was probably a mere three minutes, but it was three minutes that brought people together in a time when we're supposed to social distance. And that's what it's all about.”

But even if schools do find enough money for devices there are supply delays. And because hotspots rely on cellular data, they may not work in some remote areas.

“I was never able to use my hotspot on my phone until the last year, because I didn't have cell service at home. So it didn't help me to have a hotspot,” says Tina Meserve, superintendent for RSU 9, based in Farmington.

“I don't think there's a lot like that. But definitely in rural Maine, in Chesterville and New Vineyard and Starks, that's the reality for some of our families.” Despite all of the challenges, Education Commissioner Pender Makin says she's been proud of how schools and teachers have adapted so quickly and hopes that the new recommendation to continue remote learning will give educators an opportunity to plan for the rest of the academic year.

“It's about giving folks permission to sit with this new, hard reality. And to then be able to make informed decisions about how to move forward.”

In his home in Fort Fairfield, McLaughlin says that even with the occasional computer crash, he has seen how online classes and other school connections have helped his students through the pandemic. Something as simple as getting a school meal dropped off each day, he says, can make a difference.

"Now, I can't tell you the number of times I've heard kids complain about school lunches. That is not their favorite thing, right?" he says. "You can't imagine how much they look forward to that bus dropping that school lunch off. Now they think that's the most wonderful thing ever. Think about it, though. That day, that might be the only person they heard from in school that whole day. That's some normalcy.”

Originally published April 8, 2020 at 5:38 p.m. ET.