BALDWIN, Mich. — With hundreds of thousands of students forced to learn at home, the pandemic put a spotlight on the huge disparities that exist when it comes to accessing the internet.
When schools in Michigan switched to virtual learning in March 2020, more than 400,000 students did not have access to high-speed internet.
For many of us, connecting online is an afterthought, but 70 of Michigan’s 83 counties have connectivity rates below the national average.
According to research by Public Policy Associates Inc., Michigan ranks in the bottom half of three major categories for student accessibility: internet (28th), computers (30th) and broadband (33rd).
The digital divide deepens based on several factors including median income, race and geographic location.
Black and Hispanic students are less likely to have access to high-speed internet than white students, while those living in rural areas of the state are much less likely to have access to broadband in comparison to those living in metro areas.
To see how districts tackled the digital divide in the short term, FOX 17 traveled to a Michigan county dealing with both widespread poverty and a lack of broadband infrastructure.
Lake County is an area of Michigan most known for its trout fishing hot spots, but despite being home to more than 100 lakes, the county is a digital desert.
Only 6% of homes have access to high-speed internet, on top of that nearly 40% of kids are living in poverty.
“When the pandemic hit, and we went 1:1 overnight with devices, we found out quickly that not everybody had adequate access or even any access to high-speed internet,” Baldwin Community Schools Superintendent Rick Heitmeyer said.
When the pandemic hit, the majority of the district’s 500 K-12 students had no access to internet at home.
In the beginning, they did what they had to get materials to students. “We were literally delivering packets door to door or having parents come here to pick them up. A very archaic way of delivering instruction,” said Tim Fournier, a Baldwin Elementary School student support specialist.
Needing to find a better way to keep kids engaged, the district worked alongside nonprofit Connected Nation Michigan and secured grant funding for personal WIFI hotspots.
The Verizon “jetpacks” are smaller than a cellphone and helped bring internet into the homes of 200 Lake County families.
Through funding provided by the CARES Act, Baldwin Community Schools can pay for the several thousand-dollar monthly service to keep them running.
“The biggest gains for me to see as a classroom person is to go into these remote households where a child hadn't been schooled or seen a teacher in weeks and finally that make that connection,” Fournier said.
A huge change at a crucial time, but it’s still not without challenges. The devices require cell service to work, which can also be tough to find in more rural areas.
“We live in huge forest. Tin roofs, metal roofs, created another challenge. The other [challenge] is where you might have a family of five children, they may need two devices,” Fournier explained.
Families sometimes having to get creative to get connected, driving down the road or working from their driveway.
“It was hard, but they did their best and we did what we could do. And we kept in contact with the school and everything to make sure that the kids were learning what they needed to know,” Lake County Mom Diane Simmons said.
“Learning has happened in spite of this pandemic,” Fournier added.
The devices are not a total fix, Heitmeyer says more must be done to make sure kids in rural areas like his, have a reliable connection to the modern world.
“Our big goal is to work with an internet company and get internet, high-speed internet into every student's home, whether there has to be fiber that goes there, or through the satellite system, or whatever it would take to get it there,” Heitmeyer said.
Increasing broadband access nationwide is not a partisan issue, in fact, lawmakers on both sides say it’s a priority. As negotiations between the Biden administration and Senate Republicans continue on a potential infrastructure spending bill, one area they match on spending is on broadband.
The USDA also has programs to get rural areas up to speed. A $3.3 million loan deployed in the fall of 2020 through the department’s ReConnect Program helped bring high-speed broadband to thousands of people in Van Buren, Kalamazoo and Allegan counties.
“Too many families, especially in rural areas like here in southwest Michigan, lack access to reliable, high-speed internet. Especially as many of us work, take classes, and utilize telehealth services from home, we need to ensure all families have access to broadband service,” says U.S. Rep. Fred Upton (R-St. Joseph) who supported the program in 2018.
At the state level, Governor Gretchen Whitmer established the Michigan High-Speed Internet Office this week to expand broadband access across the state.
"COVID-19 has only confirmed how the lack of high-speed internet access can cause too many Michiganders to struggle in their ability to engage in online learning, to use telemedicine to seek needed healthcare, to search for a new job or to take advantage of all the online resources," said Governor Whitmer. "A fully connected Michigan is essential for our state to reach its economic potential in the 21st-century global economy."
The office will develop the state's high-speed internet strategy and coordinate its funding and implementation.
“Having this single point of contact will help to create a more digitally equitable state and ensure every Michigander has what they need to succeed in a digital economy,” said Eric Fredrick, Vice President for Community Affairs for Connected Nation Michigan.
Many school districts, local libraries and neighborhood organizations now have WIFI hot spots available for student use.
Kent District Library with locations across Kent County has more than 1,000 devices available to rent.
Approximately 37,000 homes in the county don’t have access to broadband, the divide came to a head at the start of the pandemic.
“We had people, especially when our doors were closed, we had people in our parking lots who are using the WiFi, wherever they could get it," KDL User Experience Manager Morgan Hanks said.
"Whether you live in a rural area, or you have some disparity in your family, where WiFi is just not readily accessible, it becomes a WiFi hot spot, it's a place where you can get your internet and KDL provides it free of charge.
All you need is to be 18 and up and have a library card to rent one of the hot spots for four months at a time.
In the past year the program has already paid dividends, of the families surveyed who rented a hotspots, 40% say they lacked reliable or affordable internet service at home.
For low-income families able and interested in getting internet service at home, the FCC has launched the Emergency Broadband Benefit, which will provide a discount of up to $50 per month toward broadband service.
Eligible households can also receive a discount of up to $100 for the purchase of a laptop, desktop computer, or tablet from participating providers. For more information, click here.
Those in need of internet access can use the Michigan WiFi Hotspots map below to find the closest connection.