WNY's rural schools work to bridge digital divide

Aug 21, 2020

Ellicottville School District has roughly 640 students. Of those, about 30%–nearly 200 students–don’t have reliable internet access. That’s twice the national average, but on-par for Cattaraugus County–which has the least internet access in New York State. District Superintendent Bob Miller said that connectivity is a major concern as the district pursues a hybrid learning model in the fall.

“We do have a number of families that have neither internet service nor cell phone service, which makes it a tremendous challenge for those kids to do things digitally,” said Miller.

The Federal Communications Commission's map of internet connectivity in the rural Southern Tier features several dead spots
Credit FCC.gov

However, Ellicottville has found some unique solutions to help students connect.

“We moved our Wi Fi routers to the windows last April and shared that with the parents that they could pull up in front of the school in the bus loop and, you know, use the school's WiFi to complete work.”

They plan on keeping those routers at the windows through the fall semester. They also plan on providing hotspots to families with cellular data but not internet access. And for those who have neither, they have USB drives with all of the coursework delivered to their students. 

In Salamanca, deputy superintendent Mark Beehler said they’re also providing USB drives for those who need it, and they’re equipping school busses with WiFi and parking them in areas without much internet access.

“So in those places, we plotted out the most, the closest and most densely populated spaces, and we parked school buses that have Wi Fi at the closest point to them, where they could get cell service because those buses work with cell service as well,” said Beehler.

He said the district is also planning to partner with local businesses to set up WiFi in their parking lots as it moves forward with a hybrid model.

Cattaraugus-Little Valley school district–where 27% of students don’t have reliable internet access–is doing something similar as they take a hybrid approach. Superintendent Sharon Huff said that they’re providing WiFi in the school’s parking lots, and in the parking lots of four Fire Departments in the area.

“So in the event, a family did not have internet access, they could easily access internet in the community,” said Huff. They’re also giving students personal hotspots as needed and–similar to Salamanca–have three vans with WiFi that will be strategically placed around the community.

Students aren’t the only people in these school districts struggling–teachers are also facing a lack of internet. Miller recalled two teachers who face this issue right off the bat.

“I had two that come to mind immediately that it was not uncommon to see them sitting in front of the school for two to three hours a day using the Wi Fi internet access,” he said.

Miller says that while these measures may not solve the connectivity issues of Cattaraugus County–where over 29% of households lack internet access according to the Census Bureau–it’s a start.

“It's not ideal, and I realize it's not ideal, but it does provide a means if nothing more for a student to be able to connect,” he said.

While districts like Miller’s have extensive plans set in place to address lack of internet access, other districts are not as far along. Pioneer and Randolph school districts don’t address connectivity in their published reopening plans, and Franklinville’s plan says is still assessing the needs of its students and teachers. None of these districts could be reached for comment.