Dance instructor and Mount Baker area resident Juliette Machado has resorted to finding a viable internet connection away from home in order to provide a stable platform for her Whatcom Community College dance classes — just one example of the challenges educators and students face with remote learning. (Courtesy photo)

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One year into the COVID-19 pandemic, many more students in Whatcom County are able to connect to the internet for remote learning, thanks to communitywide efforts to rapidly deploy mobile hotspots and other steps to boost connectivity. 

Collaborations between Whatcom County, the Port of Bellingham, six county school districts, internet service providers, cell phone companies and others have made these connections possible, particularly in rural communities with limited internet options or none at all. 

Still, a clear digital divide remains. Rural residents are more likely to have slow or unreliable connections, often with fewer options and at higher cost. 

Even before the pandemic began, the port had made it a priority to expand high-speed internet in rural Whatcom County, after finding in a February 2019 feasibility study that many homes and businesses lacked access to broadband. Broadband is defined by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) as download speeds of at least 25 Mbps and upload speeds of 3 Mbps.

As the economic development coordinator for Whatcom County, the port is investing in a countywide, open-access fiber network on the basis of broadband internet’s support of economic development and increased access to education and medical care.

Immediate need

With the fiber network not yet constructed, there was an immediate need to help students and teachers connect as the school year began last fall.

The Whatcom County Council allocated nearly $1.4 million of its CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act money to school districts for technology and internet connectivity. The Blaine, Ferndale, Lynden, Meridian, Mount Baker and Nooksack Valley school districts each received $230,000 from the county for year-long hotspot subscriptions and laptops, said Jed Holmes, community outreach facilitator for the county executive’s office.

Gina Stark, economic development manager for the port, said school districts each purchased 200 or more hotspots from cellphone carriers AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon, who offered discounted prices to schools for distance learning. She said the hotspots included unlimited data and were not subject to roaming charges.

The hotspots were provided free to families and enabled WiFi connections at home. 

“We all worked a lot and very tirelessly … to get these mobile hotspots to schools and the schools distributed them to families so they could have them in the home,” Stark said in an interview.

In the largely rural Mount Baker School District, which encompasses 622 square miles and includes the communities of Glacier, Maple Falls, Kendall, Nugent’s Corner, Deming, Van Zandt and Acme, internet options are limited and many lack cellphone service. 

Mount Baker School District Superintendent Mary Sewright said the district used its CARES Act funding from Whatcom County to purchase laptops, Chromebooks and 400 mobile hotspots. 

Hotspot issues

Sewright said hotspots have worked well for some families, but not for others. She said a large portion of the district lacks cellphone service needed to make hotspots work. For students unable to connect at home, the district set up hotspots in its school parking lots, and provided “internet cafés” inside empty school buildings.

“A lot more people have access,” she said. “But it’s still not great in places. You’ll be on Zoom meetings and someone will freeze up. That even happens in school board meetings.”

Stark said hotspots can be slow to transfer data or upload large files, can only support so many devices at once, and are affected by rooms with thick walls. 

Fiber offers a much more stable connection.

“A hotspot is like a country pothole road, and a fiber (connection) is a super Autobahn highway,” she said. “It’s a stronger connection, the fibers are in a protected area, and it’s protected against wind and rain.” 

Students have also been able to get hooked up with internet service providers. The Whatcom County Council in September allocated $110,000 of its CARES Act money to local provider PogoZone to expand rural broadband access countywide.

Ferndale School District helped the district’s families set up connections with PogoZone, and purchased 315 mobile hotspots for 275 families and 693 Chromebooks, Superintendent Linda Quinn said.

She said five families have signed up for the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction’s (OSPI) K-12 Internet Access Program, funded by the CARES Act. The program allowed students who received free and reduced lunch and lacked connections free access to Comcast’s Internet Essentials program and a similar program from Ziply.

Comcast announced in February it was doubling its speeds for Internet Essentials customers from 25 to 50 Mbps for download speeds and from 3 to 5 Mbps for upload speeds.

Quinn said some in the Ferndale district still lack service.

Distance learning here to stay 

Though some Whatcom County students are returning to classrooms as school districts switch to hybrid models, many families have opted to stay full-remote due to health concerns. 

Quinn said the Ferndale School District has 1,159 students who will remain full-time remote because they or their families chose that option.

“We will continue to provide remote learning through the end of the year for the families who want it,” she said in an email.

The Mount Baker School District has 527 students who are continuing full-time remote, Sewright said. Even if more students wish to return to in-person learning, the district may have trouble accommodating them.

“The challenge is we have to do the six feet of distancing and only have so much room in classrooms,” she said. “Right now it’s hard to bring more kids in unless that changes.”

Schools are working make their classrooms safer. Sewright said the district plans to install a new $350,000 HVAC system to provide better air ventilation, another COVID-19 expense it must incur even as it faces a drop in revenue due to declining enrollment. 

While broadband challenges continue in the district, Kendall Elementary School students and staff have adapted to keep learning going during the COVID-19 pandemic. Signs on the school proclaim “We Are Baker Strong” and thank Kendall teachers for their dedication. (Amy Nelson photo © 2021)

Staying engaged

For distance learners, the challenge is how to keep them engaged.

“We have students with incompletes and are working on ways to help students catch up,” Sewright said. “Some students are just tired of it.”

Those returning to in-person school are “a little more pumped up.”

“It’s exciting for them to be on campus, be around peers, see teachers and be practicing fall sports,” she said. “That’s a big motivator for students.”

Emily Hie is a full-time remote third-grade teacher at Kendall Elementary in the Mount Baker School District. She will teach third-grade remote learners across the district for the rest of the year. 

Hie said she has found workarounds to glitchy internet to help students stay engaged. For students with connections too slow for Zoom, they can participate on Pear Deck, an interactive program for Google Slides. She said her students did a Valentine’s Day activity where they decorated digital cards and pasted them into others’ mailboxes.

“It’s also nice to have those other ways for them to participate so they feel comfortable participating, because some don’t feel comfortable turning microphones or cameras on,” she said. 

Hie said the district has a policy that allows students absent from Zoom to be marked present for the day if they log in to do other online work. 

There have been silver linings to remote learning. Hie said she sees how technology can help engage students. A student who isn’t motivated to write a paper might rather record a voice memo to explain their thinking, she said.

“It has pushed our district into providing more updated technology because we were a little bit in the Stone Age before,” she said. 

Still, it’s a challenge to meet individual students’ needs with distance learning. 

“I would be able to tell if a student was having a bad day or needed to go home or see a counselor if they were at school,” Hie said. “Not being able to read them as easily, I cannot really advocate for them the same way as if they were in-person. That worries me.”

Hie said remote learning is going much smoother compared to last spring when schools scrambled to distribute technology and get kids online. Still, access to quality broadband connections is not always equitable.

“You need high-speed out here to be able to function,” she said. “A lot of the people who live in the area who I know, who I work with even, your basic Comcast package that is the basic bare bones that might work in Bellingham would not work out there.”

Remote work a challenge, too

Juliette Machado is a dance teacher at Whatcom Community College and a freelance videographer. She lives off Mount Baker Highway about 15 minutes from Bellingham, and has been teaching dance classes remotely since the pandemic began. 

She must routinely upload large video files for her work and slow internet speeds make that challenging. She frequently goes to her partner’s office in Bellingham for faster internet.

“I have a need that is too great with what we are working with out here,” she said. 

Machado said her internet speeds are 8 Mbps download and about 1.5 Mbps upload — far below the FCC’s threshold for high-speed internet. She also must share the internet with three others who work from home.

“I have found ways to navigate [slow internet], but it is a challenge if I were to be stuck out here,” she said. 

She said after 10 years of living in Bellingham, she chose to move into a rural area because of the affordability and scenery. She said having high-speed internet at her house would free her up to be fully remote.

“I would feel more able to do my jobs fully,” she said. 

The port’s broadband project

The port is proposing to build a 113-mile, countywide fiber-optic network that will be leased to internet service providers. Segment one would connect Bellingham, Cedarville, Limestone Junction and Glacier; segment two would connect Nugent’s Corner and Nooksack and run west to Birch Bay; and segment three would extend south from Deming along Highway 9 to Skagit County.

At the Feb. 18 port meeting, Stark told commissioners the port plans to begin design permitting this spring on segment one and start construction in 2022. 

Port of Bellingham broadband map
Three cable routes to be constructed and available to independent service providers to access to provide internet service in areas of Whatcom County without connectivity or with marginal connectivity. Map by Port of Bellingham, for March 5, 2019, Port Commission presentation.

The February 2019 study estimated that constructing segment one, which would connect Bellingham, Cedarville, Limestone Junction, and Glacier, would cost just over $2 million. 

“Construction costs are a lot higher than we anticipated,” she told commissioners. “So I began to think, how can we ensure that we make it out to Glacier? This was a promise we made to our community and it’s still an extremely high-need area.” 

Stark said in an email that a revised estimate for segment one is between $2.5 and $2.7 million, depending on permitting costs and utility pole replacements for building aerial fiber lines. The port has secured about $2 million in funding for the segment.

She said due to higher-than-anticipated construction costs, the port is exploring possibilities of leasing pre-existing fiber or partnering with private entities on construction. She said saving money on construction may free up funds to provide more fiber-to-the-home connections. 

Stark said the port will next work on the Highway 9 segment connecting Deming with Skagit County because linking up with Skagit County’s fiber-optic network will provide redundancy in case a fiber line were to fail. She said the Highway 9 segment also has the best chance of qualifying for new federal funding for broadband. 

Stark said in an interview her goal is to work with community partners, including the county, Public Utility District, Lummi Nation, and Nooksack Tribe, to continue to bridge the digital divide in Whatcom County. 

She said that means finding ways to expedite fiber builds and acquire funding, but also making sure residents are proficient with technology. Another example of the digital divide is seniors trying to get an appointment for vaccine on computers they hardly ever use, she said.

“Making sure they have the resources and education they need is always really important,” Stark said. “It’s more than just building the infrastructure.”