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Denver Public Schools Confirm What We Knew All Along

Like many other school districts across the country, Denver Public Schools (DPS) has moved to online only learning for the rest of the academic year. This change has created a lot of new challenges for DPS, like having to train teachers to succeed in an online teaching environment, as well as provide school lunches and health services to qualifying students.

It has also clearly highlighted and exacerbated the digital divide in Denver and the inherent inequality built into Denver’s Internet infrastructure. Extended spring break has ended and DPS is now frantically trying to get students online in their homes so that they can continue to participate in their academic pursuits. Some students have both the Internet and a computer at home, others have a device and no Internet, and still more have nothing at all, according to DPS board members and principals.

On the devices front, DPS seems to be doing pretty well. Their next shipment of Chromebooks gets in next week, and with that they should have enough devices to get one to every student in need. After that, their next concern will be making sure they have enough devices in place to replace broken ones. Students can’t wait a week to have the keyboard repaired on their computer, they’re going to need to be able to get a loaner right away.

To address the lack of Internet at home DPS is doing two things:

  1. Encouraging families to sign up for Comcast’s Internet Essentials package. This includes 25 mbps for $10/month + tax.
  2. Distributing wifi hotspots.

Undocumented and unbanked families are struggling to access services from Comcast since they need a social security number and credit card to sign up. This approach also puts a new cost burden on families during a time of economic crisis. If they didn’t have Internet at home before, it was probably not for a lack of wanting it. Public school is supposed to be free, this introduces a cost barrier that may exclude the most vulnerable students in our county.

After DPS decided that they were moving online for the rest of the academic year, Comcast has made their essentials package free for the first 2 months which should get students through the school year, but we can’t rely on Comcast’s good will to help us solve this problem.

There are also reports coming from different families around the city and county of Denver that it will take them until at least May to get Internet in their home from Comcast - those students could miss almost a month of school.

The wifi hotspots are a better solution than signing up for Comcast in that it is free for families and offers comparable speeds to the Essentials package, but if you live in a district with poor cell phone coverage, you’re going to struggle to get online with acceptable speeds (more on this below).

These wifi hotspots are most likely providing speeds of up to 15 mbps all the way down to 1 or 2 mbps, and Comcast claims to provide speeds of 25 mbps but we can safely assume that is close to 15 - 20 mbps. In the best case scenario, these options are still 30 mbps below the 50 mbps threshold that the Denver Internet Initiative defines as acceptable. One student using 10 mbps is going to just be able to stream lessons for school. If they have any other siblings who have to share that network with them, they are really going to struggle.

In last week’s school board meeting, board president Dr. Carrie Olson said, “To the comment about hotspots and laptops and Internet access, I think all of the Board has been out in some way, shape or form, in the field, and I think we all would concur that that’s the spot where we’re really struggling.”

These same sentiments were echoed by other educators on the call. Karen Powell, principal of Montbello Career and Technical High School, stated that her students all had laptops but that many couldn’t get online. Internet access is their biggest challenge right now, next is the emotional support and counseling of students.

Shayley Levensalor, principal of Cowell Elementary School, also said that Internet access was the biggest issue her school was struggling with. Jamie Roybal, principal of Ellis Elementary, said that she has had families calling and telling her that Comcast won’t be able to get them hooked up until May.

The move to online learning has changed a lot about how teachers, students, and parents interact. A few members of the DPS board shared sentiments that they hope this change remains long after COVID-19 has passed. They don’t want a return to normal, but a new normal that provides students with more customized support and engages families in new ways. Whatever that new normal may be, we can bet that it will rely on students having access to the Internet at home.

As soon as extended spring break was announced in Longmont, they rolled out 2 months of free Internet access to income-qualified customers of their city-owned Internet. This is something they can do so quickly because they have invested in and own their own Internet infrastructure. Their low income plan costs $14.99/month for 25 mbps or$44 for a gig. A gig in Denver, if you’re fortunate to live in a neighbor with access to that infrastructure, costs $85 or more.

In this global health pandemic, the benefits of controlling our own Internet infrastructure and not being reliant on private corporations becomes very clear.

  • We can move quickly to ensure that our students get connected at home.
  • When people lose their jobs we can make sure folks are still online so they can find new opportunities.
  • Ensuring that more folks are online at home gives our small businesses new revenue opportunities.
  • Having reliable Internet ensures that people will be able to work from home (job permitting) for as long as necessary.

Longmont was able to move swiftly and address the needs of their students. They have the flexibility to extend these free offerings to students in need for the upcoming summer school session if need be. And if we get to the fall and are still utilizing remote learning, they are going to be able to set their students up for success in a way that we can’t.

Social distancing, in some form or another, could be around for several years. Each time the CDC or the Governor’s office tells us that we need to stay home and schools get pushed online, we are going to have to go hat in hand to Comcast and hope that they’ll help us. Given their track record, we don’t see this as a viable strategy. This is why we need municipal broadband.