Monday, November 30, 2020

Bridging the Internet Divide in the Navajo Nation

 

In a previous blog post outlining the various challenges remaining to ensure that anyone anywhere can obtain quality education at little or no cost (the Straube Foundation’s mission), the first challenge identified was access to the internet.  The past almost-year of pandemic quarantining has only highlighted the number of households who do not have regular quality access to the internet.  Meaning that possibly tens of thousands of children have been left behind in their schooling.

 

The Navajo Nation provides a perfect example of the challenge of providing internet access in a large, thinly populated, remote rural area.  Due to the high incidence of Covid among the Navajo population, all K-12 schooling is currently online.  Many of the homes don’t have electricity or running water.  They are many miles from the nearest neighbor, and even further from the nearest school or public library or other wifi hotspot.  An estimated 50 percent of the Navajo Nation residents do not have an internet connection.  Stated another way, only 25 percent of the residences have broadband internet access.

 

The students and their families have taken heroic measures to ensure that the kids can keep up with their schoolwork.  Some hike to the top of a nearby hill every day to catch the elusive cell signal to download and upload assignments.  One high school student even moved to the big city (Phoenix) alone to earn income while finishing up school online.  And many of them drive long distances to access wifi.

 

The school district has instituted some measures to help.  It sends school buses around the reservation with assignments in hard copy, and returns to the school buildings (and teachers) with hard copy versions of the completed homework.  They have also outfitted 14 school buses with wifi, which are then parked in strategic locations several times a week.  The students or their parents drive to the school bus, and stay parked there for as long as needed. 

 

Depending on the distance between the students’ home and the parked school bus, they will stay parked there for however many hours it takes for the student to actually do the homework or to attend classes via zoom.  This allows the student to download homework, do the homework, and upload the completed assignments all in one sitting.  In some cases, this is a six-hour session next to the school bus wifi, not counting the round-trip from home (which can also take multiple hours)!  That’s dedication (and a full-time job for the students’ driver parent)!

 

Since Covid, the school district has put so much effort into online learning, they’ve received state approval of a fully online high school.  Now, let’s hope all the high school students can access the internet to take advantage of that learning opportunity.

 

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