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Online class, no WiFi: The struggles of students without reliable internet access

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When Duke announced that most students had to leave campus because of the coronavirus pandemic, Josie Tarin’s first thought was that she did not have Wi-Fi at home.

“We can [apply] to stay at Duke… but I don’t think anyone should have to choose between good service at Duke or being with your family during a global pandemic,” said Tarin, who was a senior at the time and graduated this spring.

Tarin’s mom wanted her home, and she agreed. But continuing school without good internet access “absolutely sucked,” the political science major said.

As of May 3, 106 undergraduate students had applied to have Duke send them internet hotspots, according to Sachelle Ford, director of Duke Low-Income, First-Generation Engagement and the David M. Rubenstein Scholars Program. For students who don’t have reliable internet access at home, taking classes on Zoom, or simply connecting with friends, can be an overwhelming challenge. 

Searching for solutions

After Tarin returned to Siloam Springs, Ark., a GroupMe chat of 245 Latinx students, including Tarin, discussed potential solutions for students who do not have reliable internet at home. Someone mentioned that Comcast was providing temporary free Wi-Fi during the pandemic, but Tarin was disappointed to learn that the company does not serve her area.

She then explained her situation to her financial aid advisor, who connected her with Ford.

After exploring promotions offered by internet service providers and realizing that none of them would work for Tarin’s location and timeline, Ford told Tarin that Duke would mail students without Wi-Fi a 4G LTE wireless router. The director completed the application form for Tarin, who was informed that the University was backlogged with hotspot requests but that she would receive the router soon.

As of May 3, 86 of the 106 undergraduate students who had applied for a hotspot had been approved. Six of those students were still waiting on their hotspots to arrive in the mail, Ford said.

Ford also said that she does not have the data to approximate the percentage of Duke students who do not have broadband internet at home, but the Federal Communications Commission's 2019 Broadband Deployment Report states that 21.3 million Americans do not have high-speed internet. However, a study by the company BroadbandNow shows that the FCC underestimated the problem, judging that 42 million Americans, or 12% of the country, do not have the ability to purchase broadband internet. 

In limbo

Tarin received the router on the Tuesday evening after spring break, which was extended by a week because of the pandemic. She used data on her cell phone during break and the two class days that followed.

She didn’t know when the hotspot would arrive, but she knew that after she used a certain amount of data on her phone, the internet connection would slow down to the point where “participating in classes live would be basically impossible,” she said.

As a result, Tarin “rationed” her LTE usage. She limited video calls with friends, which she said made her feel even more disconnected from others while social distancing. In group chats, she felt left out when friends referenced gatherings on Zoom that she could not be a part of.

Tarin also found it almost impossible, on a cell phone, to look at readings while remaining active on Zoom. So before receiving the Duke hotspot, she merely listened on Zoom during class, letting others answer questions and hoping that her participation grade would not be affected. 

Looking forward

The hotspot allowed Tarin to comfortably do work on her laptop again. Sometimes the connection became unstable, so she would try moving the router to different parts of the house, which seemed to do the trick. She also needed to ensure that the machine was regularly charged and turned off when she was not using it.

Students were told that they would need to return the hotspots at the end of the semester, so Duke could lend them to other students in the case of a similar future scenario. However, Tarin planned to study for the LSAT and apply for jobs this summer, both of which require internet access. She hopes to extend her hotspot loan, but in the worst-case scenario, she said that she just might “bite the bullet and get Wi-Fi.”

Ford said that the hotspot loans are intended for the Spring 2020 semester only, but students who have trouble affording Wi-Fi can apply to the Duke Student Assistance Fund to alleviate the cost.

Through Duke, Tarin received a refund of her unused food points, and salary for the hours that she would’ve worked as a research assistant at the Kenan Institute of Ethics. Tarin said that these funds may be enough for her to purchase a home Wi-Fi plan. 

Junior Evelyn Cupil-Garcia, whose home Wi-Fi is so poor that sometimes it disconnects for days to a month at a time, also worries about how unstable internet access will affect her summer.

Originally, Cupil-Garcia planned to work for a startup in Seattle and live in housing funded by Duke Technology Scholars. However, because Duke is no longer sponsoring summer activities, she has no choice but to work from home in Morehead City, N.C. The computer science major noted that some of her friends who also had Seattle-based internships have decided to pay for their own housing, which she cannot afford.

‘Vicious cycle’

Until her senior year of high school, Cupil-Garcia used an Ethernet cord to connect to the internet.

Around the time she was accepted to Duke, Cupil-Garcia asked her mom to consider installing Wi-Fi for the home, citing that some neighbors had started doing so a few weeks prior. The tipping point came when she received a new laptop through the Rubenstein Scholars Program as an incoming first-year. The MacBook didn’t have a port for an Ethernet cord.

Cupil-Garcia said that the family purchased the cheapest, most bare-bones Wi-Fi plan offered by Spectrum, which came with challenges. When using Wi-Fi, Cupil-Garcia has to be in the same room as the modem. As soon as she steps out, “the internet gets really iffy,” she said.

In the second week of school after spring break, the Wi-Fi disconnected for two days. When Cupil-Garcia called Spectrum’s customer service, the representative said that the poor connection was likely due to the plan that she has, and that she should upgrade to the next-most-affordable plan offered, which costs triple the amount her family is paying now.

After Cupil-Garcia said upgrading would not be financially feasible, the representative tried recovering her internet connection by adjusting the channels, which worked for a week until the Wi-Fi disconnected again.

During the initial two days without Wi-Fi, Cupil-Garcia looked for advice from a few of her friends, including senior Jamal Burns, co-president of Duke LIFE. He suggested that she reach out to Ford, who responded with the link to the application form for a hotspot loan from Duke.

Cupil-Garcia’s hotspot request was accepted three hours after her submission. It took a week and a half for the machine to arrive. Even though she was able to receive extensions for most of her work, Cupil-Garcia recalled feeling “stressed to the point where [she] couldn’t work,” noting the difficult transition from attending college with “DukeBlue” Wi-Fi and multiple libraries to doing the same work with a minimal internet connection and her bed as her desk.  

“It was kind of like a vicious cycle of when I didn't have internet I wasn't able to do work, but sometimes when the internet came back up I would just be so upset that I would just sit and stare at the wall and be like, ‘What has my life come to?’” she said.

'They wouldn't really understand'

Cupil-Garcia said returning home in the midst of classes harshly reminded her of her low-income status.

“At Duke, you're constantly reminded by social barriers that you're low-income, but it doesn't deter you from doing well in your classes or having basic needs, because you have Wi-Fi and a library to work [in],” she said. “Coming back home, being low-income really stands out.”

In March, part of Cupil-Garcia’s bedroom ceiling fell because of a termite infestation. While her stepdad, who works in construction, repaired the roof, she had to move into a much smaller spare bedroom that could barely fit a mattress, which further disrupted her studies.

“I remember not telling my friends because they’re very high-income. One of my friends said ‘I just turned my basement into a workspace,’ and I was like, ‘I don’t even have a basement,’” she said. “They wouldn’t really understand.”

On top of COVID-19 and lack of internet access, Tarin also has the added stress of caring for her 18-month-old nephew full time. Her sister, who works at Wendy’s, where her hours were reduced because of the coronavirus, had to stop hiring a babysitter.  

Tarin could only study at night, when her sister or one of her parents returned home and could take care of the toddler. During online classes, she would occupy her nephew with her cell phone in the hope that he would stay quiet for an hour.

The pre-law student rejected the notion that COVID-19 is “the great equalizer,” which public figures like Madonna and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo have dubbed the virus. In fact, Tarin said, the disease has deepened inequalities, with unequal internet access being one of the many ways in which the gap has widened between socioeconomic statuses.  

Tarin recalled that in her first year, she shared with a friend from an upper-class background that she doesn’t have Wi-Fi at home, and he was “very shocked.”

“I think it’s important that other Duke students consider… how the other half lives,” she said.

Cupil-Garcia also recognized that some Duke students may have trouble imagining life without the internet.

“In this day and age, you wouldn't expect people to not have internet, but internet is expensive,” she said. “Like, what should I have, internet or food on the table?”

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