Homework without High-speed Internet

Amber Blum, Associate Community Development Officer
Posted 2024-01-30

Imagine being a math teacher, but only half of your class has access to calculators at home. Or imagine being an English teacher, but only a fraction of your students are able to take the book home. How would you adapt? This isn’t far from reality for many students in Maine who lack internet access at home. As part of Island Institute’s work supporting digital equity planning in Waldo county, my colleague Zuzy and I recently visited Belfast High School to hear from students and teachers about the impact the digital divide on education.  

We learned most students at Belfast High School complete 50-75% of their coursework online, using computers for tasks like graphing equations, researching, and completing assignments through Google Classroom. Assistant Principal Jessica Woods shared that students begin using computers as early as second grade. Chromebook laptops are issued to students as freshmen and returned as seniors, with textbooks mostly available in digital format. 

While some teachers keep physical textbooks, many students prefer the web versions. This aligns with the modern demand for digital literacy in various careers. This is why digital equity is a key strategy in Island Institute’s Workforce Pathways programs. 

Unequal access to internet in students’ homes poses a serious academic disadvantage for many. Teacher Ethan Belmont explained that if students are given a homework assignment and don’t have internet at home, they can’t even attempt it. In contrast, students with internet access can finish the assignment without the extra hurdle of finding reliable Wi-Fi.  

 During the Covid-19 pandemic, when schools shifted to virtual learning, the federal government funded hot spots to provide internet access for students and teachers at home. Even though schools are back in person, these hot spots are now offered to students with unreliable home internet. However, they have limitations.  

According to Helen Morel, a student at Belfast High School, the hotspot can often only handle one device, or else it will crash. Most nights she goes to McDonalds to use their Wi-Fi. She says her siblings just don’t do their homework. 

Teachers said they do not know which students have connectivity at home. A student not completing their homework could be interpreted as laziness. Students admit to getting stressed out when they can’t turn in their homework on time due to internet issues. Student Meredith Belfast shared how rough it is to draft emails to her teachers only to have the email not send. She says there’s just no way to communicate outside of school. The absence of internet at home is not the fault of the students or parents; Maine faces unique challenges in connecting its residents.  

Towns in rural Maine are far apart, and the challenging terrain complicates the construction of broadband infrastructure. Internet service providers lack economic incentives to invest in expensive cable installations for isolated homes. Some families resort to multiple Wi-Fi providers for TVs, phones, and internet, such as Starlink. While the internet has long been seen as a commodity, students now consider it a crucial utility for completing homework and staying on track in class.  

Fortunately, these internet accessibility issues are being addressed at both state and federal levels. The community of Belmont, along with six other Waldo County communities, recently received broadband infrastructure funding through the Maine Connectivity Authority. Federal programs like Broadband Equity Access and Deployment Program (BEAD) will help rural towns connect to high speed internet over the next five years.  With funding from the U.S. Dept. of Treasury, the Maine Connectivity Authority has launched a Connectivity Hub Grant program which will lead to the construction of Connectivity Hubs in community anchor institutions. These hubs will provide a free space for students and other populations to access high-speed internet. Efforts are being made to assist with connectivity, but it’s still important to recognize the digital divide that is present in so many classrooms in Maine.