Pandemic exposes valley’s digital divide

Roaring Fork Schools builds network to deliver internet to underserved homes

Lindsay Fendt
Aspen Journalism
A Broadband Internet transmitter on the roof of Basalt Elementary School is seen pointing toward a neighborhood Friday afternoon.
Daniel Bayer / Aspen Journalism.

Before the pandemic hit, Ana Posada, 60, decided to take English lessons in preparation for interviews to obtain her U.S. citizenship. She started classes with English in Action, a local nonprofit in the Roaring Fork Valley — but last year, COVID-19 put an end to her in-person classes and tutoring sessions.

A tutor asked if Posada would be interested in learning via Zoom. Posada agreed to use the online platform, but she was hesitant.

“I’d never used Zoom, and honestly, I wasn’t completely sure what it was,” she said in an interview in Spanish.

Posada’s tutor met her at the English in Action office and showed her how to use Zoom. When Posada had difficulty with the audio settings, her tutor arranged for them to see each other on video while talking on their phones.

“I’m so grateful for her and the patience she’s had with me,” Posada said. “There are lots of people who just give up when they can’t do this.”

When the pandemic hit, life pretty much moved online. But many people in the Roaring Fork Valley were cut off from certain services or activities because they lacked access to the internet and/or the technical know-how needed to use it. While Posada was able to persevere, many valley residents were never able to jump on a Zoom meeting. As a result, English in Action lost about a third of its participants during the pandemic.

Technological inequities have long been present in rural places such as the Roaring Fork Valley, but the sudden shutdowns illuminated just how deeply entrenched the problem was.

“Digital literacy has always been an obstacle, but pre-COVID, we had other areas that came more to the forefront,” said Lara Beaulieu, executive director of English in Action. “Now we know that even with loosening restrictions around COVID, digital literacy is still going to be essential for our participants.”

Nongovernmental organizations, school districts and government agencies in rural mountain towns acted quickly to bridge the digital divide. Many of the resulting initiatives will continue to help some people connect long after the pandemic is over, but major gaps still remain.

“The valley rallied super hard (during the pandemic), and we still let people fall through the cracks,” said Sydney Schalit, executive director of Manaus, a social-justice nonprofit based in Carbondale. “We can hustle and get it done, but the systems have to change.”

Schalit launched an internet-equity roundtable early during the pandemic to bring together different groups throughout the Roaring Fork Valley and identify technological issues. From the discussions, a wide range of problems emerged: families couldn’t access online forms for pandemic assistance, kids couldn’t attend school online, older adults couldn’t manage food deliveries and people couldn’t receive telehealth services.

According to Schalit, many suffering the most were part of immigrant communities or did not speak English as their first language.

“I think about all the quick little keypad strokes that I know that for my 70-year-old parents, it … blows their minds,” she said. “And then just imagine if all of that’s also in a language that you’re not used to.”

Hard data on technology access is limited in Colorado. The state estimates that 87% of rural households have sufficient broadband access, but those estimates are based on self-reported data from internet providers. In the Roaring Fork Valley, data is even more limited, but several groups that conducted technology surveys in their communities found significant gaps in digital equity.

Of its 226 students, English in Action found that only 43% had access to a computer — and some of those students did not know how to use it. Last April, a Roaring Fork Schools survey found that 340 students — about 6% of the district’s student population — did not have access to the internet for remote learning. Additional families had low-quality internet access that was either too slow or did not work well with multiple people using it simultaneously.

Jeff Gatlin, Chief Operating Officer of Roaring Fork Schools, holds up a broadband high speed internet receiver while standing next to a transmitter array on top of the roof of Basalt Elementary Friday afternoon.
Daniel Bayer / Aspen Journalism.

According to Jeff Gatlin, chief operating officer for Roaring Fork Schools, some families could not get immediate internet access when schools first went online. Some were able to sign up for temporary promotions through internet companies that offered inexpensive internet for several months. For students who couldn’t get temporary service, the district opened some schools so they could use computers. Still, not every student was able to get online. The district saw enrollment drop more than 6% between 2019 and 2021; the decline was probably partly caused by the pandemic and technological issues.

“The crux of the issue,” Gatlin said, “is how do we ensure that students that don’t have internet access can still engage and still access educational opportunities?”

The school district, which sought a permanent solution, took advantage of new technology released early in 2020. Using antennas, the district created its own LTE network, which is what cellphone providers use to enable internet access on smartphones.

The school district received a total of $400,000 from two rounds of the Connecting Colorado Students Grant Fund to mount the equipment on six school buildings. Partners and private building owners near high-density communities that lacked internet also agreed to have equipment placed there. These locations include a fire station, a water-treatment facility and even a silo in El Jebel.

The Roaring Fork Schools’ network, which came online in November, has the reach to cover about 90% of the families with students on the free or reduced-lunch program. So far, about 30 families have gotten hotspot devices that enable them to use the network, but the district is working to expand access to the 2,265 students — about 40% of the district’s student body — who could potentially benefit from it. Nonprofits and foundations chipped in the additional money to buy hot spots for families’ homes.

“We’re also looking at this as a broader benefit for families that struggle financially,” Gatlin said. “What’s driving this is the benefit for our students to continue learning, but it goes above and beyond that.”

According to Gatlin, Roaring Fork Schools was the state’s only district to build its own network during the pandemic. Other districts in the valley say they were able to cover most of their students with free devices and mobile hot spots for existing cell networks, but some students were still left out.

“The only real challenge we experienced was the technical limitations of a hotspot,” said Taylor Lower, communications manager for Eagle County Schools. “Hotspots require a cellular signal, and in our mountainous community, there are a few places where the cellular service is weak or nonexistent, but these situations were very few.”

Some rural areas without cell service also lack the physical infrastructure needed for broadband access. In these places, obtaining internet service is either very expensive or nearly impossible.

For those working on digital access in the Roaring Fork Valley, infrastructure gaps — a lack of cell towers and cables — are the most challenging obstacles. While Schalit plans to continue the roundtable to explore ways to expand access, she hopes it could lead to something bigger, such as money from the state’s broadband-development program or from the federal infrastructure bill currently being debated.

“There’s got to be a solution,” Schalit said. “I feel like we’re all still kind of plugging holes, but eventually we’ve got to just remake the whole barrel.”

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