From the rural Southern Tier to the shores of Lake Ontario, nearly 40,000 children across Western New York live in a household without either a computer or high-speed internet.
That’s enough to fill KeyBank Center – twice.
The number, based on the most recent estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau, underscores the fundamental problem with teaching students from home since schools moved instruction online during the Covid-19 pandemic: digital access.
It also shows how much work falls on schools to bridge the digital divide and prevent students from falling behind, especially if districts are forced to continue remote instruction come fall.
“That’s a big, big concern,” said Bret Apthorpe, superintendent of Jamestown Public Schools.
“Part of reopening schools is requiring teachers and families to be prepared to be sent home again this fall in the event of a second wave of the pandemic,” Apthorpe said. “We got a pass as educators this first time, because there was no notice and it was all new. But we’re not going to get a pass the second time.”
The data shows none of the nearly 100 school districts throughout the eight counties of Western New York is immune to the problem. It’s an issue, to some extent, for students in Buffalo or Barker, Amherst or Attica, West Seneca or West Valley, Clarence or Clymer, Cheektowaga or Chautauqua Lake.
But the data clearly paints a portrait of a region where digital access poses more of a problem for some places than others, whether because of affordability or availability.
For example, a third of those 40,000 kids without a computer or broadband at home live in Buffalo, where eight out of 10 students in Buffalo Public Schools are considered economically disadvantaged.
Head 75 miles southwest to Sherman, a small Chautauqua County town, and nearly half of those under 18 are without access.
Every student in grades three and up receives a tablet to take home, but teachers have nevertheless been told to plan their remote lessons with the assumption that “not everyone has good internet, if they have internet at all,” said Michael Ginestre, the Sherman superintendent.
“It’s an infrastructure issue that’s beyond the control of the school district and really beyond control of the family,” said Patrick McCabe, superintendent of the Akron Central School District, where 14% of children are without digital access.
“It’s not like they don’t want to purchase it,” McCabe said of broadband. “It’s just not there.”
The mid-March closing of schools and subsequent shift to online learning forced districts to send school-issued laptops home by the thousands and loan mobile hot spots to families in need.
Early on, some districts relied on old-fashioned paper packets while they came up with creative solutions.
One idea: Park school buses equipped with wireless routers in neighborhoods so students can access their coursework online.
“I don’t know the answer. I really don’t,” Apthorpe said. “We’ve created a list of approximately 40 objectives that our reopening-the-school plan will have to achieve and this is one of those objectives, so we have to figure it out.”
No district spared
The Buffalo News looked at the most recent Census Bureau estimates on computer and broadband access for those 18 and under in the 98 school districts in Western New York.
The estimates show:
• Among the 312,000 children under 18, more than 39,600 live in a household with no access to a computer or high-speed internet. That’s more than one in every 10 children in the region.
• All 98 school districts have at least some portion of their enrollment without access to either a computer or high-speed internet. The percentage ranges from as high as 46.9% in Sherman to less than 2% in the Pembroke Central School District in Genesee County.
• Two-thirds of school districts have at least 10% of their students without digital access. They include Akron, Barker, Cheektowaga-Sloan, Cleveland Hill, Eden, Holland, Lockport, Maryvale, Newfane and Springville.
Even in districts with the best access, roughly 2% to 4% of children are still without. They include Alden, Clarence, Frontier, Lancaster, Orchard Park and Williamsville.
• The largest numbers of “disconnected” students are in urban districts with large student enrollments and high poverty.
Buffalo, the region’s largest district, has by far the most with nearly 13,000 children, or 22.5%, living in a household without either a computer or broadband.
In Niagara Falls, that number is more than 2,200 or 20.7%; Jamestown, nearly 1,200 or 16.2%; and Lackawanna, more than 1,000 or 23.1%.
• Statewide, Buffalo ranks 79th from the bottom – with Niagara Falls close at 96th – among the state’s 685 school districts when it comes to access. But they rise to third- and fourth-worst in the state when ranked among districts with populations of more than 50,000.
Compared with its peers, Buffalo is in the upper middle of the pack. The 22.5% of children in Buffalo without a computer or broadband at home compares with 12.4% in Pittsburgh; 18.8% in Rochester; 23% in Cleveland; 32.1% in Syracuse; and 35.1% in Detroit.
• Small, rural districts in Chautauqua, Cattaraugus and Allegheny counties fare the worst in terms of the percentage of students without home broadband.
They include Sherman, as well Clymer, 46.5%, Pine Valley, 43.3%; Randolph, 39.5%; and Belfast, 38.6%. The five rural districts rank among the worst in the state when it comes to percentage of students without access. Sherman and Clymer rank 9th and 10th from the bottom, respectively, among the state’s 685 school districts.
The rural access gap
As in urban and low-income suburban districts, poverty prevents many families in the rural Southern Tier from subscribing to broadband service, said Janice Dekoff, the executive director of the Chautauqua-Cattaraugus Library System. On top of that, high-speed service simply isn’t available in outlying portions of Chautauqua, Cattaraugus and Allegany counties, where homes are located too far apart to justify the cost of fiber installation.
Through its $500 million New NY Broadband Program, launched in 2015, New York State agreed to subsidize the expansion of private broadband networks in underserved Southern Tier areas. But that project, originally scheduled for completion in 2019, encountered permitting and infrastructure delays that have left much of rural Cattaraugus and Allegany counties without service. The project is now expected to end in December 2021.
“A lot of it is the nature of where the housing is – there's literally no fiber run,” said Wendy Butler, superintendent of the Belfast Central School District, where roughly 40% of the student population does not have high-speed access. “Our families live out in the woods and the hills, where no one has run fiber yet.”
In those areas – which include sparsely populated swaths north of Olean, west of Springville, and south and east of West Valley, according to state broadband records – homeowners typically have access to a cellphone data plan or to other, slower types of internet, such as fixed wireless or satellite, said Richard Zink, executive director of the Southern Tier West Regional Planning & Development Board, which has led local efforts to expand broadband. But the speeds and data caps on those legacy services can make it difficult for students to participate in video calls, download large files, or take part in other types of digital instruction.
Even Zink, whose work involves advocating for high-speed broadband, only has satellite access at home. If he and his family exceed their allotted monthly usage, the service automatically slows.
“Between my wife and I doing work from home now, and the kids doing Zoom or social networking – we’re constantly over the limit,” he said.
Bridging the divide
School-issued laptops and devices have gone home by the thousands over the past couple months to help resolve at least part of the access problem.
“Just over 20,000,” said Myra Burden, chief technology officer for Buffalo Public Schools.
Niagara Falls, too, found the need to get more devices into the hands of their students after a survey of district parents found 77% had a computer at home.
“That number comes with challenges,” said Mark Laurrie, the superintendent in Niagara Falls. “Some of them are old, old devices that can’t do much. Also, there may be three other siblings in the home and the mom uses it. So often times a five-person home is fighting over one device.”
As far as broadband access, districts are trying to get around the problem as best they can for now.
In Akron, some students have been listening in on class by phone rather than online, said McCabe. One option may be to download video lessons onto memory sticks and distribute those to the roughly 175 students without broadband, he said.
Both Akron and Jamestown had considered the idea of equipping school buses with wireless routers and parking them in neighborhoods so students can connect to the internet. But neither district has the money in a tough budget year, the superintendents said.
Both districts also have encouraged students and parents to access the district’s Wi-Fi from the school parking lot. But Apthorpe doesn’t know how feasible that really is, either.
Buffalo and Niagara Falls, meanwhile, have made mobile hot spots available for households upon request. That, too, hasn’t worked as well as first thought.
In Buffalo, the district has stockpiled some 2,200 mobile hot spots to loan to families. Since then, there have been more than 1,000 requests. But as of last week, Burden said, only 270 have been picked up.
Niagara Falls has had a similar experience with the 30 hot spots secured by the district, making Laurrie believe that household access to the internet is greater than originally believed.
“We have 18 of those devices sitting downstairs not being used,” Laurrie said. “I was shocked. No one is clamoring for any of those – 12 people. And I’m not even sure those 12 needed them.”