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THE GREAT DIVIDE

Digital divide remains wide for some

Connectivity issues continue to plague students and their families

Qiuliang Ma said his sons, 15-year-old Donald (right), and a 4-year-old, get kicked off the Internet several times a day in their high-rise apartment in Chinatown.
Qiuliang Ma said his sons, 15-year-old Donald (right), and a 4-year-old, get kicked off the Internet several times a day in their high-rise apartment in Chinatown.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

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Rubia and Maynor Menjivar’s technical troubles intensified before the school year started. At the time, the Menjivars, who live in East Boston and did not have Internet service, began panicking about how their 6- and 11-year-old daughters would connect to their classes, which would be online because of the pandemic. Rubia Menjivar had lost her job and Maynor Menjivar was barely picking up shifts as a cook.

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Rubia Menjivar said she had explained to her daughters’ teachers at their East Boston school that the family had no Internet service. But instead of helping her, Rubia Menjivar said, they sent home paper assignments and, later, two Chromebooks, promising that help with Internet connectivity would soon come.

That help never came.

“We were very stressed, and we were very frustrated,’' recalled Rubia Menjivar, speaking in Spanish. “I said to my husband, ‘How do they think our girls are going to study and do their classes?’ ”

Despite stepped-up efforts to improve technology and Internet access for the city’s 51,000 students, some are still slipping through the cracks, mired in connectivity and technology woes that often prevent low-income, immigrant, Black, and Hispanic students from learning.

One Roxbury mother estimates that a teenage son probably misses about “two whole school days” each week dealing with technical and connectivity issues.

Other families complain of spotty Internet service in their high-rise buildings and low-income communities, and students stress over being repeatedly kicked off their Zoom classes and Google education platforms.

City Councilor Edward Flynn said that while Boston’s school system has made progress in ensuring that students have access to computers, families in parts of the city struggle with Internet service and have limited options for an affordable and reliable plan.

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“I’d like to see us do more outreach to residents in public housing,’' said Flynn, who has been advocating for Internet access and digital equity. “I’d like to see us do more outreach to our immigrant neighbors, [so that we are] making sure that they and their families are part of the digital connection.”

Qiuliang Ma, father of a 4-year-old and a 15-year-old freshman, said his sons get kicked off the Internet several times a day in their high-rise apartment in Chinatown.

“It’s really disruptive to my oldest son’s education,” Ma said. “Everything that the teacher is trying to explain is very important. He would come out and ask for help. And I feel very helpless. I feel like there’s really nothing I can do, and I have no control over this.”

Ma, speaking Cantonese, recalled through an interpreter an incident in which he was helping his younger son, Dennis, as the kindergartner’s teacher detailed how to make a gingerbread house.

“In the middle of the instructions, we’d lose the Internet,’' said Ma. “It would be hard for us to pick [the class] back up again because we would have lost some critical steps.”

His older son, Donald, who attends Boston Latin Academy, said he simply wants “a smooth Internet experience.”

Officials from Boston’s school district, City Hall, and a pair of Internet providers said they are working to ensure students and their families, particularly those in low-income communities, have adequate devices, connectivity, and training to navigate the Internet. Since March, district officials said, they distributed more than 40,000 Chromebooks, 6,000 WiFi hot spots throughout the city, and 3,000 vouchers for broadband service through Comcast’s Internet Essentials program, which costs $9.99 monthly.

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Mark Racine, the district’s chief information officer, said roughly 2,000 families — about 90 percent of whom are Black or Hispanic — are participating in the voucher program, made possible by a grant from the state. (The district matches the grant.)

The voucher program benefits families who have not had Internet at home and are in urgent need because of the pandemic.

“We [tell the schools that] if anybody has connectivity issues, give them a voucher,’' Racine said. “If they are already connected but they happen to mention they cannot pay the electricity bill this month, give them a voucher. Let’s take at least one bill off their plate and make it easier for them.”

Still, district officials said they have received complaints about “intermittent” service and other issues that affect students’ ability to join classes. This fall, the district began a project led by a group called CoSN to analyze the connection speeds and Internet providers of students as they log into Zoom classrooms.

But problems persist for families. Rubia Menjivar said after schools closed in March, she went to a Comcast store in East Boston to get information about the Internet Essentials program. But a representative at the store gave her a number to call instead. She said she and her husband called the number several times but were repeatedly told they did not qualify. She said they eventually signed up for an expensive monthly plan that cost more than $50.

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“I don’t know if we can afford it,’' she said.

Comcast said Internet Essentials, established in 2011, has connected 8 million people from low-income communities to the Internet. The pandemic “has accelerated the need for digital equity and Internet adoption programs” to support students most at risk, said spokesman Marc Goodman, who urged anyone experiencing problems to contact the company. (The program also has a dedicated phone line.)

Comcast also has been offering 60-days of free Internet Essentials service to eligible new customers. The company is providing free Wi-Fi in so-called “Lift Zones,” at Boston Centers for Youth & Families sites. It said it has waived the requirement that families pay off debt to be qualified to apply.

Verizon, which has partnered with the city, said in an e-mail that in addition to its Fios Internet services for low-income customers through its Lifetime Discount Program, the company now offers “deeply discounted Internet connectivity agreements for school districts in 38 states, including Massachusetts.”

City Hall officials, pointing to Boston’s Wicked Free Wi-Fi Program, said Boston has invested more than $15 million in additional resources that have strengthened the city’s Internet network and connectivity. The city has distributed devices to residents in need and has supported digital training through various nonprofits, said Mike Lynch, the city’s director of broadband and cable.

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But Lynch said more needs to be done.

Boston is still trying to figure out how to sustain many of the initiatives it started during the pandemic, including $1 million to the Tech Goes Home program that provides digital education, services, and devices to 1,500 families.

“We’ve gone through the immediate digital equity/digital divide response and now we’re cobbling together the next few months,’' Lynch said. “Going forward, we need to address the coming school year…. because we don’t know what that looks like yet.”

Lashaunda Watson lives in an area of the city where Internet service is slow.
Lashaunda Watson lives in an area of the city where Internet service is slow.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

Lashaunda Watson, a Roxbury mother with an 11th grader and seventh grader in Boston Public Schools, said she has yet to have high-speed Internet access despite upgrading her plan several times. The service remains spotty.

“It’s upsetting,’' Watson said. “I’m in the city. I would imagine here in the city that we would have [better service.]”



Meghan E. Irons can be reached at meghan.irons@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @meghanirons.