MONUMENT VALLEY, Utah — Like most parents, Sheila Holiday is struggling to teach her three children math at home while schools are closed because of COVID-19. But unlike many other parents, she can’t just go online and watch a YouTube video to help explain calculus and fractions, because of where she lives.
“Math was my worst subject ever, and I just wish we had internet here we could rely on to get some reviews,” she said. “If you were to turn on a movie, it will just stop.”
The Holidays, who live on a ranch in Monument Valley where they raise sheep and horses, have a computer at home. And Holiday said usually, they can get online. But lately their internet has slowed. She suspects it’s because more people are online since Monument Valley schools closed March 16 to stop the spread of coronavirus.
Internet access is hard to come by even in normal times on the Navajo Nation in Utah, so teachers typically don’t assign homework. But now they have to, and the lack of internet access is making at-home learning a challenge during the pandemic. It’s also highlighting the gap in internet access across the district, and speeding up efforts to close the digital divide.
At Monument Valley High, where Holiday’s daughter is a junior, less than half of the school’s 225 students have internet access at home, Principal Spencer Singer said. And that’s one reason teachers rarely assign homework.
“There’s a lot of kids that don’t have even electricity at home, and they have responsibilities as far as taking care of livestock,” he said. “For all intents and purposes we operate in a third world-type situation.”
Since the school switched to at-home-learning, teachers have tried to provide assignments that don’t require the internet, or even a computer, Spencer said. For a couple of weeks they distributed packets on the school buses that bring meals to students each day. But last week the school stopped taking the packets back, in yet another effort to slow the spread of the virus.
“If [students] have a smartphone to take a picture and email it or text it in, or just to save it, and that we will get it from them at a future date,” Singer said.
That has Holiday worried.
Her high school student McKayla was already doing most of her work online. To turn it in, she has been driving to the high school to log on to the school’s wifi — and even that isn’t enough.
“She’s getting behind in one of her classes online, and I’m trying to explain to the teacher that the internet service is poor,” she said.
For other families the situation is even more challenging. Celia Black is raising six grandchildren, including two girls who are also juniors at Monument Valley High. She said one of them got a laptop for Christmas from her paternal grandmother, and it’s the only computer in the house.
The other junior girl has been using her phone to access her assignments, Black said, but it’s not working well.
“She’s getting frustrated with this and that,” Black said. “She says, ‘Oh, I wish my teacher could be here.’ So, the other granddaughter has to be the teacher.”
Singer said he knows some of his students are struggling, and that many don’t have the ability to turn their homework in online. That’s also the case in Montezuma Creek, where roughly 30% of the 250 students at the high school have internet access at home, said Kim Shaefer, principal at Whitehorse High School.
She said the lack of internet access was a problem even before the school was forced to close due to coronavirus.
“The internet provides access to all kinds of learning,” she said. “So our kids have been missing out on that access since internet came to everyone else.”
The Utah Education and Telehealth Network provides internet to all schools in San Juan County through a microwave network, which is being replaced by a broadband network that is under construction. Emery Telcom is laying the broadband and has said it will sell service to individual households in Montezuma Creek, Monument Valley and Navajo Mountain. But that could take years, according to Aaron Brewer, technical director for the San Juan School District.
“Emery Telcom currently stops in Blanding, so there’s a whole bunch of people who have not been served by internet fiber optics for years,” Shaefer said. “It mattered to them before, and it matters even more now.”
In the meantime, Shaefer and Brewer have spearheaded a pilot program to get internet access to some students using hotspots that connect to cell towers. Around 30 families received hotspots last fall. And the school district was planning to expand the program to more students next school year, but the pandemic is pushing that deadline up.
Brewer said he’s surveyed the district to determine which service providers work where and has ordered 240 hotspots that should arrive this week. He’ll then send them to the high schools in Monument Valley, Montezuma Creek and Navajo Mountain, along with Chromebooks.
“If we could get it done by the end of April, that would be wonderful,” he said. “My hope is we can do it sooner than that.”
Brewer says hotspots aren’t a perfect solution as they aren’t always strong enough to stream videos, and they only work in homes with cell service. But they’re a good stopgap measure while the district works on a long-term solution.
“We’re just trying to cast a broad net,” he said. “But if we have to go further we will.”