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Navajo Students And Teachers Say Hotspots Help, But Data Limits Cause Problems

A young Navajo girl works on a laptop in a living room decorated with Native American weavings
Courtesy of Celia Black
Briana Lee is a junior at Monument Valley High School. She received a Chromebook and hotspot from the San Juan School District in late April, to help her keep up with school during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Briana Lee is a junior at Monument Valley High School. She received her hotspot last week, and said it’s already helping her get more work done. But after three or four hours, she usually maxes out her daily data allotment. 

“It’s just frustrating,” she said. “Because it turns off automatically.”

Once, Lee said, it stopped working while she was taking a test and she lost all her answers. 

Lee is one of hundreds of students on the Navajo Nation in Utah who received hotspots and Chromebooks from the San Juan School District in April to help them complete assignments during the COVID-19 pandemic. The hotspots connect to cell towers to provide wireless Internet in students’ homes, but they shut off when they reach 300 megabytes each day.

And while some teachers said the hotspots have improved their communication with students, students can’t always complete their work with the allotted data, or download video lessons. 

Art teacher Georgiana Simpson, who teaches at Whitehorse High School in Montezuma Creek, said the devices have made it easier for teachers to talk with students over email, citing one student she hadn’t heard from since schools closed in mid-March. 

“She was a classic example of a really good scholar who went silent,” Simpson said. “When she received the hotspot, she was like ‘Oh, I got my hotspot, and I’m working on my packet now!’” 

Most students at Whitehorse did not have internet at home prior to receiving the devices, according to Principal Kim Schaefer. Now, 65% of students at the school have a hotspot. Schaefer said she’s still trying to reach some households, to find out if they have cellular service. If they do, she’ll work to get them a hotspot. 

Schaefer said the hotspots have led to an increase in students accessing their assignments online. As of last week, over 40% of students at the school had logged onto an online learning management system called Canvas, up from under 30% the week before. 

But the devices have been less effective for video communication. Simpson said she created a 15-minute video to explain an art assignment. But her students weren’t able to download it. 

“Originally we were thinking, ‘Okay, we’ll get the hotspots and it may mean we are able to have a virtual classroom setting,’” she said. “But we realized very quickly that there is no way to go to that learning structure.”

Live-streaming probably won’t ever be an option, said Aaron Brewer, technical director for the San Juan School District. But videos should work. He said he can raise the megabyte limits on a case-by-case basis, if students request it and explain why they need more data.

Brewer said the school district bought “a big pot” of data that can be used across all the hotspots and should last for six months. And while some students have already requested and received increases in their daily limit, Brewer said he’s not worried about running out of data across the district, because some students are using less than their daily allotment. 

“It seems to balance out,” he said. “I haven’t denied a request to increase a data limit yet.” 

As for Briana Lee, she said her grandmother has asked the school to increase her hotspot’s capacity, but the school district has not done so yet.

Kate Groetzinger is a Report for America corps member who reports from KUER's Southeast Bureau in San Juan County. Follow Kate on Twitter @kgroetzi

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