Gardiner Area High School first-year student Sarah Work types on her laptop Friday during her virtual math class at Allison Foust’s home in Pittston. Because of problems connecting to internet at her home, Work has been doing virtual classes at her friend’s house. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

PITTSTON — In order to connect to the internet, Paula Work has to connect two wireless internet hot spots up to her computer to ensure that her daughter has the ability to connect to her remote classes.

The issue of having unreliable internet has gone on for the past 10 years at the Work household, but in light of the coronavirus and schools switching to remote learning, the issue has become an everyday reality that is now affecting the education of her daughter, Sarah.

“I have to take her into my work, or lean on my neighbors for their internet,” Work said. “One time I was able to use my phone, that has the other carrier, but I cannot be at home (away from work) so she can use my phone for access.”

Sarah Work is a freshman at Gardiner Area High School, and in the past week has switched from learning through a hybrid model to fully remote because of multiple COVID-19 cases reported at the school.

Her mother, Paula, explains that when Sarah tries to connect to Google Classroom, the videos are often delayed or do not load — causing her to either miss the lesson or have to keep rewinding or restarting the part that lagged.

They may be able to send off an email if they are lucky, but when it comes to videos and programs that need more broadband, it is virtually impossible.

Paula Work talks Friday about difficulties in getting internet connection for her home in Pittston. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

Work makes the point that many teachers use different programs, so sometimes the internet connection may work for her daughter Sarah, and other times it will not. To upload her homework, Sarah has to do so using the internet and most of the time, it crashes or does not upload her homework correctly because of the unstable connection.

“My kid (Sarah) is at her friend’s house so she can go to school this week,” Work said. “The issue is still not solved, and it’s worse than frustrating. Most people don’t have time on top of their own issues to cope with this.”

Work thinks that remote learning is difficult enough for the students, and that there should not be an extra stress of trying to connect to the internet.

“When she’s home, it’s been horrible,” Work said. “She’s stressed out because she can’t get logged in, and she knows teachers are going to take attendance. Then she has anxiety because she can’t get into class, or won’t be counted, and she can hear what the teacher is saying but can’t see because of the connection.”

The Work’s house is located in Pittston, down a dirt road around 100 yards off of Route 27.

Paula Work has U.S. Cellular for her cellphone, and consistently has around two bars of cellphone service.

Gardiner Area High School first-year students Sarah Work, left, and Allison Foust take a break Friday at Foust’s home in Pittston. Because of problems connecting to internet at her home, Work has been doing virtual classes at her friend’s house. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

They use Verizon for internet service for the house, after Work put in around 20 to 30 hours of her time trying to get service out to where she is — she points out that not many people have the ability to invest the amount of time that she has into trying to get internet at their house and describes herself as “tech-savvy.”

She pays around $136 a month for 15G internet, which she still has to connect two other 15G internet hot spots up to in order to get 45G that is able to get Sarah somewhat of an “OK” connection to her classes.

Work has tried to get Spectrum Internet down to her house, but said she was told that getting a line down to her was not worth the investment of a couple thousand dollars that the company would have to make.

“Broadband can’t be an economically based thing, it has to be supported like a utility,” Work said. “It has to work for everyone so there are no differentials in the society.”

Sarah has the ability to get a hot spot from Gardiner Area High School, according to Superintendent Pat Hopkins, but the Works are unsure how well one would work because of the fact that they already use multiple units at their house with minimal success.

Work said that Sarah was in the process of picking one up from the high school, but since there have been a couple positive COVID-19 cases she was unable to pick it up.

Gardiner Area High School first-year student Sarah Work is seen on a laptop screen while waiting for her virtual math class to start Friday at Allison Foust’s home in Pittston. Because of problems connecting to internet at her home, Work has been doing virtual classes at her friend’s house. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

Hopkins said that “they have not been informed of anyone that lives in such a remote area that they cannot connect to the internet via hot spot.”

Another mother in Pittston, Samantha Sidelinger, said that her two boys have also had trouble with a reliable internet connection.

“I have Spectrum Internet, and it’s hard for them to be present online when the service does not always work,” she said of her sons’ experience. “It’s supposed to be high-speed internet.”

Affording high-speed internet is also an issue with some families.

According to Spectrum’s website a minimum internet plan can cost a family $50 a month.

Peggy Schaffer of ConnectME said that Charter, Spectrum’s father company, has an “affordable” plan for families that qualify for free and reduced lunch during the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. However, she said that it can be a “lengthy” process and then a “bit before a decision is reached.”

Families also may have any outstanding debt to Charter, which can “kick people out” of the program. However, Spectrum has said that it forgave $85 million in some customer’s overdue balances, according to Lara Pritchard, Spectrum’s Northeast Region senior director of communications.

Joline Bell and her husband are on the Litchfield Broadband Committee, and have worked for over a year and a half to get more internet to the town of Litchfield, right outside of Gardiner and Pittston.

The Bells understand how difficult it can be to extend broadband to an area that is “more remote” by internet service provider’s standards, and currently, only 50% of the town has internet coverage.

“We have Charter (Spectrum) and Consolidated (Connections),” Joline Bell said. “We gave them roads that have no coverage and they sent their construction crew to come look at the area to see if it made sense to improve the services.”

She said that after doing so, the town was told that it was too costly to run lines down to certain areas, similar to what Work was told by Spectrum about coverage at her house.

Pritchard said that the process of permitting and attaching their cable to poles can be lengthy and costly.

“A variety of factors can affect our expansion decision, including the number of additional homes or businesses we can reach, geographic or construction challenges and overall economic feasibility,” said Pritchard.

She added that last year, Spectrum invested $55 million in infrastructure and technology in Maine, reaching 7,000 new homes and businesses.

But through the committee that the Bells are on, they can receive grants from ConnectME, which will fund partial costs to get lines down to more remote areas of the town in an effort to get more rural areas of Maine connected to the internet.

“Sometimes grant money is used for some towns to put (internet) service down a road,” Bell said. “They may pay 50% and Charter may pay 50%, or sometimes the town will pay 25%, the grant would pay 25% and the internet service provider 50%. Each scenario is different, road by road, street by street.”

Both Bell and Work say that knowing the right questions to ask the internet service provider is important when trying to get broadband at one’s house, especially when it comes to letting schools know that service may be spotty at home.

“They don’t even know what questions to ask most of the time,” Work said of parents having trouble setting their kids up with remote learning. “Does it just ‘not work,’ or is there trouble hooking up to the program, or not even getting to the point where you can hook your kid up.”

Work said there also may be a disconnect of devices at home, such as a Chromebook not being able to connect to any other equipment to make learning easier, like through double screens or connecting to a TV for a larger screen.

She thinks that in order for Sarah to have a better experience with remote learning, the virtual aspect “needs to be simplified,” such as getting teachers on the same programs or same homework dates.

“It’s an extreme stress for young people when they are already feeling like they are under a cloud, and as a society, we need to say, ‘I know that it’s a crazy time, but it’s all going to be OK.'”

Related Headlines


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.