Hazen Union Tackles Broadband Disparity

by Doug McClure

HARDWICK – Hazen Union is increasing efforts to solve the broadband disparity problems that have plagued remote learning for nearly a year. Hazen Union Principal David Perrigo said that from the outset of the pandemic he knew remote learning would encounter issues because some students do not have good—or in some cases, any—internet at home.

The immediate issue facing Hazen Union last spring was that access to broadband for remote learning was not widely available in some areas of Vermont. In other cases, the cost of internet was an expense families already financially impacted by the pandemic could not bear.

Perrigo spoke of his “continued frustration that we haven’t been able to solve something as basic as getting kids connected” during a time when such lack of connection can result in “a serious disadvantage in terms of their education.”

A McKinsey report on COVID’s impact on education found students in their sample “learned only 67 percent of the math and 87 percent of the reading that grade-level peers would typically have learned by the fall.” Data from instructional software provider Zearn showed “student participation in online math coursework decreased by 11 percent this fall compared with participation prior to the pandemic.” That figure rose to 16 percent among low-income families, which the report said was an improvement from last spring’s 41 percent decrease.

Almost a year since the pandemic began, Hazen Union’s efforts to ensure students are connected has evolved into a pilot program. The program, built with modest grant funding, operates outside of the Orleans Southwest Supervisory Union (OSSU) “in order to be a little bit more nimble in terms of how [the school] can take care of things,” Perrigo said. Before the Hazen Connectivity Project, the school drew from its own and OSSU’s limited resources to address the issue.

The school is working in collaboration with the Center for an Agricultural Economy (CAE), with funding from the Greensboro United Church of Christ (GUCC)’s Pleasants Fund to chip away at the problem. The GUCC fund was created for “selected projects, causes, agencies, or organizations whose purposes lie within the legitimate concerns of this Church but outside its ordinary operating expense budget.”

Hazen Union will first address cases where a student’s lack of internet access can be solved with financial assistance. But the Connectivity Project will not scrutinize or judge the student’s family finances when deciding if assistance is needed. “We’re not putting people through a lot of scrutiny of their economic situations, which sometimes is prohibitive for people,” Perrigo said. “They don’t want to necessarily have to fill out a lot of red tape and jump through a lot of hoops and expose their financial vulnerability to the world.” The objective, Perrigo said, is to connect as many students “as we possibly can” and remove the “incredible inequity which exists when you don’t have access to the Internet.”

The problem addresses more than students’ basic learning, Perrigo said. While the pandemic created a crisis, Hazen Union responded by creating new opportunities to modernize its approach to education and allow students more control over their learning. But much of the new curriculum Hazen Union created is strictly virtual, such as “Conversations About Growth” aimed at placing students at the center of their educational experience. “We’ve had a series of these forums about different things throughout the year, and if you don’t have Internet at home, you can’t participate in them,” Perrigo said. “So, it’s really a way to try and connect our families and our kids into the workings of the school on multiple levels.”

Perrigo said the program is still evolving and currently addresses only situations where money is the issue. “If we learn that there’s somebody who doesn’t have Internet at all, we look into it to see if they actually have it accessible to them,” he said. “And if they have it, and if they’re in an area that’s not prohibitive because of the infrastructure, we will work with them to get the Internet set up and pick up the bills for them.” Some students have internet service at home, “but it’s not adequate enough,” Perrigo said.

Perrigo hopes to expand that target and possibly extend the duration of the program. “At this point the project is limited to financial support for folks who live in areas that currently have service in the area,” he said. “Addressing infrastructure issues will be the next step in creating equity and access for all.” He added that “right now, it’s just through the end of the school year. At that point, we’ll figure out what the next steps are and if we want to expand the project.” In some cases, families and students who could benefit from the Connectivity Project might not even hear about it because they do not have internet access, he said. He encourages those who know someone who could benefit from the program to reach out to them and have them call him directly at 802-472-6511 or email dperrigo@ossu.org.

The school may find additional support from private enterprise. Following scrutiny from lawmakers and advocacy groups, Comcast increased the speed of its Internet Essentials Program for eligible low-income customers. For $9.95 a month, families can download speeds of 50MBit through the service, an increase from the previous 25MBit speed. Customers can also receive a low-cost laptop or desktop through Comcast’s partners. Larger families, though, might find a surprise cost from the newly imposed cap on data usage. But the number of Hazen Union and OSSU student homes covered by Comcast remains small. Tech Director David Martin said just 36.3% of the students are in areas covered by Comcast, while half are in territory served by Consolidated Communications. 

Consolidated offers a comparable program, but in the last year several customers reported service issues, even after the Vermont Public Utilities Commission ordered the company last January to invest in its infrastructure. In several instances, the utility was not able to extend service for months yet reported those addresses as internet served. 

“One of the challenges is just how quickly the utility company is going to be able to respond to need,” Perrigo said. “We’ve heard horror stories of people saying they’d like the service, and the response is ‘we can do that for you three months down the line.'”

Recently several Northeast Kingdom addresses were notified they might be able to use SpaceX’s Starlink to receive service without existing infrastructure. Starlink service, which is based on low-earth-orbit satellites, does not rely on running wires to homes. But with upfront costs of up to $600 and additional $99/month fees, Starlink could be out of reach for many families. Perrigo said the school would investigate whether Starlink could be an option for some students.