Grant provides ‘basic necessity’ to Colrain families: Better internet

  • CONTRIBUTED PHOTO/TOBY BASSETT

Staff Writer
Published: 9/29/2020 4:23:21 PM

COLRAIN — When remote learning began last spring, initiated by school closures resulting from the pandemic, watching a 20-minute video for a school assignment could take upwards of 45 minutes for the Bassett family.

“That’s been the biggest hurdle (with remote learning) is the lack of internet,” said Toby Bassett, who has two sons in fifth grade at Colrain Central School and is a member of the Mohawk Trail Regional District School Committee. “I don’t think any of the districts, especially ours, understood how big of an animal this was going to be.”

But just before the new school year began, Bassett and his family were offered the opportunity to switch from the satellite internet service they had been using — which had a data cap that, when reached, would cause the computers to return to dial-up speeds — to the Ashfield-based Hilltown Networks, which would boost their signal and improve their internet access.

“Now they can watch (videos) in real time, so they can go into the book work aspect of it after,” he said.

The Bassett family was one of 10 families in Colrain to benefit from a roughly $4,000 grant that Talia Miller received this summer from the NEA Foundation to subsidize the installation costs for Hilltown Networks’ services.

“I knew that it might not reach every family, but it seemed like in Colrain we had 20 families who weren’t connected well,” said Miller, who serves as the service learning coordinator at Colrain Central School. “We have a little over 100 students. I figured that was at least 20 percent of the families because of siblings, and if we could cut into that, it would be really good.”

Across the Mohawk Trail Regional School District, about 15 percent of families lack adequate internet access, according to surveys the district sent out before the school year began, said Communications Director Carla Potts.

Potts explained that could mean a range of things — from no connectivity at all, to not working as well as a family would like.

Although she doesn’t have her own classroom this year, Miller covered the class of a teacher on maternity leave last spring. On her first day of remote learning, Miller said she had students tell her they may not make it through class because of a storm coming through town.

“I was baffled at how I could help these families,” she said.

When Miller heard about Hilltown Networks, she learned it could piggy-back off of a cellular network to boost signal. So she applied for the grant — a “rapid response” grant she learned about through the NEA Foundation — that aimed to address issues that are imminent with the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The NEA (Foundation) grant,” Potts said, “is really a result of Talia going out there and being like, ‘All right, I know this is what’s happening for our district, and I know there are families that still aren’t connected. What do I do?’”

The grant was able to provide service to all families who qualified, Miller explained. To qualify, the property needed to be within range of an existing cellular signal.

“The technology reached about half of them,” she said of the 20 families that had been identified in town.

“You say half the families, but that’s half the families,” Potts added. “Half of those people didn’t think they had any options at all. They thought they were totally out of luck.”

For the families not close enough to a signal, the grant also covered the cost to purchase high-capacity flash drives, Miller said.

“It’s another way to reach people,” she said. “If we have to record things for them, they won’t have to sit somewhere, like in a parking lot, to download it.”

Potts added that in addition to the work the district is doing to address the connectivity problem — including WiFi hubs at schools and working closely with the IT department — it remains an issue the region is advocating for at the state level.

“This is a basic necessity,” she said, noting that some families are still at a standstill. “The internet now — especially now that we’re in a pandemic and we’re educating children in a pandemic — is a requirement.”

Bassett, whose two boys are now able to stay online all day, said he feels for the families who don’t have access.

“For those it worked out for, it was a huge asset,” he said. “But for every person who was connected in Colrain, there was another one that was left behind because they didn’t have the LTE (Long-Term Evolution) strength.”  LTE is a standard for wireless broadband communication for mobile devices and data terminals.

Still, Miller said it was affirming to receive support from the NEA Foundation, acknowledging the needs of a small, rural school in Massachusetts.

“A big district could have used that (money) to purchase a software license and help hundreds of students get new software,” she said. “It felt affirming to get this recognition that even 10 to 20 students, that matters. Rural equity issues matter, too.”

Mary Byrne can be reached at mbyrne@recorder.com or 413-930-4429. Twitter: @MaryEByrne.


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