Every Monday, Amber Payne and Drew Davis drive half a mile from their home near Ford on the Spokane Reservation to pick up packets of school work for their three kids, ages 5, 8 and 11.
They are among the majority of families on the reservation who don’t have an internet connection to participate in online classes after Wellpinit schools returned to remote learning amid rising COVID-19 cases. Teachers and administrators estimate about 1 in 4 students on the reservation have internet access at home, a deficit they say is hurting students’ learning and well-being.
The federal government stepped in to help when Congress passed a roughly $3 trillion pandemic relief package in March, sending $8 billion to tribal governments. The Spokane Tribe invested $4.7 million in a broadband project that would provide wireless internet to most of the reservation, but a year-end deadline to spend the funds threatens the critical infrastructure work.
In the face of this daunting challenge, students, parents and educators are going the extra mile to stay connected and overcome the “digital divide” that is especially stark in rural tribal communities.
“It’s been pretty difficult, especially when you don’t know the work that they have to do,” said Payne, a Spokane tribal member. “The math I’m getting stumped on every week, and then I don’t have a way to ask. It’s a lot harder.”
“With internet access,” Davis said, “you could just google the question and you’d have the answer in a few seconds … Now, if we have a question on one of the problems in their work, you have to text the teacher and it takes maybe 20 minutes to find out something that should take 10 seconds.”
Wellpinit Elementary School and Wellpinit Middle and High School started the school year in September in an entirely remote format before gradually phasing students in for part-time, in-person learning by early November. But after the tribe issued new COVID-19 restrictions Nov. 19, both schools returned to remote learning.
To accommodate students, Wellpinit teachers are doing double duty, teaching classes via Zoom for the handful who can participate, then taping video lessons that are loaded onto flash drives for students who can’t get online.
The flash drives go into the packets of school work teachers prepare each week for parents to pick up, and the school district has organized teams that deliver school work along with meals to families. The schools have also distributed laptops to all of their roughly 400 students, said Kim Ewing, principal at Wellpinit Elementary.
To get more of those devices online in the short term, the Spokane Tribe launched a project that has provided free cellular hotspots or satellite internet service as a short-term fix to about 150 of the 430 households on the reservation, said Frank Metlow, the tribe’s planning and economic development director. But the hot spots rely on having a good Verizon cell signal, which Davis and Payne do not, and there’s a waiting list for the more expensive satellite connections.
Tara Potter, who teaches Davis and Payne’s son Micah in fifth grade, said educators spent the summer planning around virtual learning platforms like Zoom and Google Classroom before getting a reality check when the school year started.
“We were optimistic at first when we called families and we thought we had more families with internet access, but once the school year started, we realized that was not the case,” Potter said. “As a teacher, I’m always thinking about how to best serve my students and thinking about equity and fairness. It just doesn’t seem equitable that nine out of 35 fifth graders can interact via Zoom.”
A 2019 report by the Federal Communications Commission found 46% of households on rural tribal lands have broadband access, a nearly 27-point gap compared to other rural areas. Parents, teachers and the principals of both schools estimate about 25% of homes on the Spokane Reservation have internet connections.
The Spokane Tribe doesn’t have an official count of how many of the reservation’s households have broadband access, but Metlow said with the exception of about a dozen buildings with CenturyLink service in Wellpinit, the only internet options are a Verizon hot spot or satellite service, both of which are prohibitively expensive for many low-income residents.
“The COVID issue has really put a hyper-focused spotlight on how important it is for everyone, but we’ve always known it’s been important for our rural communities,” said Debra Hansen, leader of the Stevens County-Spokane Tribe Broadband Action Team.
The nation’s broadband infrastructure, Hansen said, relies largely on for-profit internet service providers with little incentive to expand access to rural areas, where installation costs are higher and potential return on investment is limited by fewer and lower-income customers.
“The primary reason you always hear is that it doesn’t make business sense for internet service providers to reach out to rural communities, because of the geography, the sparse population and the rivers, rocks, mountains and trees that are in the way.”
That economic reality means federal support is essential to connect rural areas, but the billions the federal government spends annually on broadband doesn’t always go where it’s needed most. Funding priorities are largely dictated by an FCC map based on self-reporting by internet service providers, who indicate their ability – not willingness – to serve an area.
The map is also based on census blocks, with even a single home in range of a provider enough to paint a miles-wide swath of territory blue. The result is a wildly inaccurate picture that shows the Spokane Reservation 100% covered by as many as 13 different providers and Ferry, Stevens and Pend Oreille counties similarly well served.
“You’re introducing these huge levels of funding into this competitive business environment, and what we end up with is what we have today, which is a bunch of ISPs competing for this money so they’re over-reporting where they can provide service,” Metlow said. “That is why the national broadband map is so inaccurate.”
The Washington State Broadband Office has launched a crowd-sourced initiative to create a more accurate map. The office’s director, Russ Elliott, said the best thing Washingtonians can do to help is to take their one-minute speed test.
Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Spokane, spearheaded legislation to overhaul the FCC map that Congress passed as part of a bigger broadband package in March, but lawmakers have so far failed to pass a spending bill to fund the new mapping effort.
“These maps are not accurate, and it’s really important to make sure that the billions of dollars that are allocated each year are actually going to where the greatest need is,” McMorris Rodgers said. “For years, I have heard concerns around a lack of rural broadband, of poor internet connection, and how it has limited economic opportunities … for rural or underserved areas in Eastern Washington.”
“I’ve also heard the concerns, even before COVID, from schools,” she said. “With COVID, I think it’s only been magnified.”
Sen. Maria Cantwell has also made rural and tribal broadband access a priority, cosponsoring a bill that would speed broadband deployment on tribal land. The bill passed out of the Indian Affairs Committee in November but is unlikely to become law before Congress ends its current session this month.
“Too many Tribal communities still don’t have the internet access needed to access job opportunities, education, telehealth services, and even emergency service notifications, which were so critical during this year’s devastating fire season,” the Washington Democrat said in a statement. “We can no longer downplay the needs of Tribal citizens and allow this gap in broadband access to exist.”
The roughly $3 trillion coronavirus relief package Congress passed in March brought a rare opportunity to improve broadband infrastructure across the country, made more necessary by the pandemic. As part of the $150 billion lawmakers directed to state, local and tribal governments, the Spokane Tribe received roughly $25 million and opted to invest $4.7 million in a wireless project Metlow called “a game changer for us.”
The project should provide high-speed internet access to most homes on the reservation, Metlow said, with 2.5 GHz wireless connections from four towers. But while the towers are nearing completion, sky-high demand for the antennas and receivers needed to complete the project have slowed its final stages, and a Dec. 30 deadline Congress set for spending the money has put the tribe – like state and local governments nationwide – in a bind.
He said the project could be completed by spring, but only if Congress extends the deadline. The Federal Communications Commission approved a license the tribe needed to start work only at the end of October, leaving roughly two months to complete the work.
“We really need that extension,” Metlow said. “This was an almost impossible task to do within that Dec. 30 time frame.”
Metlow said the tribe has also used the federal funds to pay for Wi-Fi hot spots and satellite service, but because of the deadline the tribe will have to draw from its own coffers to keep those expensive stopgap solutions available in 2021. Republican and Democratic lawmakers have expressed support for extending the deadline, but the parties have so far failed to compromise on a bill to do so.
Tyleah Grant-Hargrave, a 32-year-old mother of four, lives in one of the handful of houses in Wellpinit with internet access, installed in March after she spent nearly a decade on a waiting list, she said. Before the Nov. 19 lockdown, her home had become a sort of internet hub where friends and family came to do school work and apply for jobs online.
Even without a houseful of guests, the outdated DSL connection’s limited bandwidth is strained by multiple internet users. Her stepdaughter, a senior at Wellpinit High School, does online learning along with her sons in fifth and third grades and her daughter in kindergarten.
Grant-Hargrave, a member of the Upper Skagit Tribe who grew up in Spokane, said managing online learning for four kids while looking after her youngest daughter, in Head Start, is more than a full-time job.
Her younger son, 9-year-old Deacon, was born with Down syndrome and has struggled without contact with his teachers, she said, but Grant-Hargrave said she’s grateful for the extra work the teachers are putting in.
“Given the circumstances, I know that they’re trying their best to figure out a safe way to continue giving him services,” she said. “I appreciate their efforts and everything that they’re doing. They have to re-learn how to teach without actually having you there, and that is a challenge, especially in a rural area where a lot of parents don’t have access to internet.”
Ewing, the elementary school principal, said remote learning without internet access has been hard on students and teachers alike.
“Both from an academic standpoint and also that social and emotional piece,” Ewing said, “kids are struggling. We’re struggling engaging them with the academics, but we’re also really trying to find ways to help them engage with each other.”
“In our meetings with our staff, it’s really easy to go to, ‘We can’t do it because we can’t connect,’ ” Ewing said.
“We really want to avoid that, so we take every opportunity to say, ‘Well, what can we do?’ ”
Laina Phillips, a Spokane tribal member and principal of Wellpinit Middle and High School, said teachers and administrators are “just constantly realigning and reflecting: How’s it going? Where are our gaps? What do we need to do next?”
“Connectivity is a major issue,” Phillips said. “It’s not just a struggle for the students. It’s a struggle for our parents, who are trying to support their kids in distance learning. It’s hard to connect to them, too.”
Elisabeth Page, a kindergarten teacher a Wellpinit Elementary, said she often works 12-hour days, laminating and cutting cards for the weekly packets at home after recording video lessons and calling and visiting families.
“This year has had a lot of challenges,” Page said, “but one of the best things that have come out of this year is that we get to decide what education looks like. … We have an opportunity to do things differently, and different is not necessarily bad.”
Page said that for all the barriers remote learning has presented, the frequent check-ins with parents and kids has been a silver lining.
“It’s scary, and it definitely takes more work,” she said, “but there have been some moments this year where we’re just like, ‘Oh, my gosh, I’m so glad we did that, because it lets me see that child in a much better light and a full picture of what the whole child is.’ That’s so important in education, and I think we lose that often.”
“There’s some good in all of this, if we can find it and hold onto it.”