In search of a hot spot: How one local student is learning remotely ... in her car

  • Hampshire Regional High School in Westhampton, March 2020. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

For the Gazette
Published: 4/27/2020 10:59:14 AM

As many students in the commonwealth transition to remote learning, some face an extra barrier to work around every day: no broadband internet access in their homes.

Emily Godden, 17, is one of those students. 

“I feel like the only reason it’s getting any attention is because of classes moving all online,” said Godden, a student at Hampshire Regional High School in Westhampton, “but it was definitely an issue before the whole coronavirus happened, and it just never got any attention.”

Some local legislators have been raising awareness about the issue of high-speed internet access, or lack thereof, during the pandemic. 

“When we talk about remote learning, there has to be a recognition that there are inequities in many of our rural communities who cannot have access to broadband,” said Rep. Natalie Blais, D-Sunderland. “We can’t expect our students to be held to the same standards as other students across the commonwealth who have access to broadband right in their homes.” 

Gov. Charlie Baker referenced the need for improved internet access in his 2020 State of the Commonwealth address earlier this year, stating that when he first took office in 2015, “many communities in western Mass. had no plan for installing high-speed internet.” But after four years of work and support from the Legislature, he added, “every one of those communities will either already have high-speed service or have a plan in place to make it happen.”

Still, having a plan in place for service in the future isn’t the same as having access, and some students and teachers find themselves suddenly trying to learn or teach remotely without high-speed service in their homes.

Before the public health crisis, Godden could stay late after school or go to the library or cafe to get her work done. 

“Not that I’m behind” other students, she said, “but I did have to put more effort in to do stuff that they were able to do at home.”

With schools closed due to COVID-19, and home internet not fast enough to keep up, she now drives to the center of Goshen to use an internet hot spot for her classwork. 

“I don’t know if you’ve ever tried doing work in your car. It’s not exactly set up for it, so it’s hard to watch a video and take notes when I don’t have a desk or anything in my car,” Godden said. “I sit in the backseat of my car and just kind of spread everything out with stacked-up books, so I can prop my laptop up, and then take notes on my lap.” 

Godden sometimes makes multiple trips per day to use internet for her classes, adding that she counts herself lucky to have access to a car. But it’s a tricky setup.

“There was one day where it was really cold, and I had to leave one of my Zoom meetings because I didn’t want to keep my car on the whole time,” Godden said. “I would much rather be at my house right now.” 

In a press briefing on April 22, Lt. Governor Karyn Polito referenced gaps in access to high-speed internet in some parts of the state. 

“What we’re talking about today is a temporary step to fill these gaps,” she said. “The Massachusetts Broadband institute at Masstech, working with our state-owned network, and local internet service providers, will offer new Wi-Fi hot spots to unserved municipalities.” 

People should be following social distancing protocols when using the internet hotspots, she said, and MBI will be posting the locations of new hot spots online

Blais said she has been working on increasing access to broadband internet and to hot spots so that people are able to work remotely, even if it is from their cars.  

Gretchen Morse-Dobosz, the superintendent/principal of the R.H. Conwell School in Worthington, said communicating with families has been key to transitioning to remote learning for students, with or without broadband.

That communication “required us to first survey our families and get a feel of who had strong access, intermittent access,” said Morse-Dobosz, and “from that survey, we were able to figure out, on a needs basis, who might need support.”

The town of Worthington has internet hot spots set up at the school, the town hall and the library, where people can park and use the internet. Morse-Dobosz said students aren’t alone in needing these hot spots to do their work. 

One teacher “sits in the school parking lot for several hours, just to be able to teach,” she said. 

Morse-Dobosz said the school has transitioned to less synchronous, project-based learning with flexible deadlines so students can work at their own pace.

“Once it gets nicer (outside), there are picnic tables throughout the school property that we’ll set up to practice social distancing, and families could sit at those picnic tables,” Morse-Dobosz said. “But unfortunately, that is the reality — that where a hot spot is now, the access doesn’t really give them a lovely space to do the work in.”

Lillian Eden writes for the Gazette from the Boston University Statehouse Program.


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