Public education is online now—how are families with limited internet access coping?

Written by: Erica Manoatl
Date Posted: May 8, 2020

School days for Colorado’s children have shifted entirely online due to COVID-19, but many children lack reliable home internet access. Last week we shared findings from a study conducted by the Colorado Futures Center at CSU which analyzed internet access data among school-aged children across the state. The study found that there are roughly 54,000 Colorado students without internet access, and the vast majority of these children—more than 41,000—are Hispanic/Latino. With the current school disruptions, children with inconsistent internet access are struggling to access remote public education, and those without access are being shut out of public education entirely, which will likely exacerbate achievement gaps.

Behind these data and analyses are real kids and families—Coloradans who are confronting this new daily reality and working hard to stay on track academically. Denver resident Nallely Antunez is a strong and resilient single mother of two school-aged children who attend Johnson Elementary in Denver: Destiny, in first grade, and Kevin, in pre-K. This week Ms. Antunez shared how challenging accessing remote learning for her children has been, and the challenges she grapples with daily.

Ms. Antunez gets up in the early hours of the morning to wake 7-year-old Destiny, prepares her breakfast, turns on the family laptop, and ushers the first grader into her first Zoom class beginning at 8 a.m. The Antunez household has slow WiFi and the internet connection is unstable at best, so Destiny usually waits about 8 to 10 minutes before she can join her first grade classroom. Next, Ms. Antunez wakes her 5-year-old son to begin a similar routine. Because the family only has the single laptop, Kevin does his pre-K classwork using pencil and paper, and Ms. Antunez takes pictures of the work on her cell phone to send to his teachers.

Within minutes, Destiny is asking Ms. Antunez for support with her classwork, telling her mother that the English assignment is unclear; though she has re-read the instructions and asked her teacher questions, she still doesn’t understand.  Ms. Antunez is a monolingual Spanish speaker, and she attempts to answer her daughter’s questions with the tools she has. She uses her cell phone to translate the English prompts into Spanish, helps her daughter do as much as she can in Spanish, and then Destiny must make sure the work is prepared in English to be submitted. Destiny asks her mother for help several times throughout the first hour and half of the morning, and Ms. Antunez wonders whether she is doing anything right.

Ms. Antunez then decides that it’s time for a much-needed break for everyone – herself included. The kids spend some time napping and watching television before lunch time arrives. Around noon, they finally get the chance to briefly go outside of the apartment and grab lunches that the school bus delivers. After lunch, the process begins again.

Ms. Antunez and her children have worked through this routine every weekday since early April. In addition to the challenges of their new academic days, Destiny and Kevin often struggle with why this is all happening. The kids don’t understand why their school days have changed so drastically, why they can’t see their grandparents, and often wonder why facemasks are necessary when they get to leave the house.  Along with her daily struggles, Ms. Antunez courageously shared her fears and concerns for herself and her kids in the future. She wonders, like everyone else, when life will return to normal. But she also wonders where her children will be academically when they return to school, and whether schools will be responsive to their learning needs.

This is an unprecedented and challenging time for Colorado families in many ways, especially when it comes to remote learning. Statistics help us to understand the digital divide in our state yet struggle to fully illustrate stories like that of the Antunez family, in which a mother’s commitment to the education of her children is restrained by limited access to the necessary resources.

Like any parent, what Ms. Antunez wants most is to have the tools she needs to support her children right now, and to be able to successfully guide them through their remote learning as their primary teacher. Through her own advocacy and as a member of Stand for Children, she urges district leaders and legislators to prioritize funding for programs and interventions that provide instructional and emotional support to families, so that learning for all students can continue.

Erica Manoatl

About Erica Manoatl

Erica Manoatl is the Research Analyst for the Colorado Children’s Campaign. In this role, she supports the organization’s research priorities, data analysis, and writing in all issue areas. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in English from George Washington University and a Master of Public Health in Population and Family Health from Columbia University.