Rural Broadband in the Time of COVID, Part 1: Recording and Transcript

Thank you to everyone who joined us for part 1 of our 2 part series on rural broadband in the time of COVID-19. For those of you who could not join or who would like to revisit the conversation you can find the recording as well as the complete transcript below. We have also added several links to other broadband funding and access resources as well as links to stories and case studies regarding broadband deployment. Join us for part 2 of the conversation: Has the Government’s Response Been Adequate? on Wednesday, April 22 at 4 pm EDT. More information on the conversation including a sign- up for those who did not already sign up for part 1 can be found here. 

Transcript: Rural Broadband in the Time of COVID-19, Part 1

Edyael Casaperalta: Okay, let’s get started. Hi everyone. Welcome to the first of our rural conversations hosted by the National Rural Assembly and the Daily Yonder. My name is Edyael Casaperalta and I’m your moderator for this conversation. Our topic today is rural broadband in the time of COVID-19. So we have prepared a fantastic conversation with panelists representing the education, healthcare, business and youth sectors in rural and native communities. We will hear a bit from our panelists first and then we will move on to and engage in conversations where we will take audience questions. But before we dive in, let’s do a few housekeeping items so you know how you send in your question.

First, how to watch this conversation. You already are on YouTube and you don’t need any signup link. You can just use the YouTube link to be able to join in and listen. How to send questions. We will be taking questions via YouTube comments. So right now the conversation is live and at the bottom of the streaming there is a comment section. You do require a YouTube account to be able to submit a question, but you can submit your questions there. We will also take questions via Twitter. If you want to submit your question via Twitter, please use the hashtag rural conversations so that we know that you’re asking a question for this panel. And we also want to hear about what’s happening in your communities. So to be able to keep the conversation going during this panel and after we want you to use the hashtags, rural broadband and COVID-19. We want to hear from you about what’s going on regarding broadband access in your rural and native community. So use those hashtags to let us know how things are going there. Also, we know that since this is the topic of the conversation, not everyone has broadband access, and so unfortunately some people won’t have the internet connection to be able to livestream this conversation. So we are recording the conversation and it will be available tomorrow at the Rural Assembly website. So we will email the link to that audio recording also to anyone that registered and we’ll post it on the Rural Assembly website so that you can share it with friends who couldn’t join us via live stream. Also the Rural Assembly has an amazing COVID-19 resource page that they have put together on the website. Please check it out. It has a lot of great resources for small communities and for rural communities and native communities during this time. We also want to remind you that next week we have a part two for this conversation.

So our conversation today focuses on the experiences of rural and native communities. And next week we will discuss what the government has done in response to broadband access during this time. Join us next week for that conversation as well. And finally, there is a survey that we put together because we want to learn if these type of conversations are important to you and what you want to hear about. So the Rural Assembly website has a survey that we’d love for you to fill out, and we’ll provide the link at the end of this conversation as well.

Okay, so now to dive in. Well, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, local, state and federal tribal governments have an ordered the closing of schools and businesses and non-essential employers have been instructed to work from home. And as you all know, these necessary changes require a necessary service, broadband. But according to the Federal Communications Commission, there are still 30 million people that do not have broadband access. 35 of those residents are rural areas and 40% of residents in tribal lands lack the service. So during the time when staying at home is our collective duty, are rural and native communities able to rely on broadband access to continue to study, work and obtain health care?

So our conversation seeks to answer that question. We will hear from panelists that will talk about rural and native communities experience in accessing broadband service during a time when internet access means being able to work and study and receive healthcare safely. We want to focus on the impact that substandard or no internet access has on the safety and wellbeing of rural communities.

Joining us in this conversation, we have four amazing panelists. Mark Estrada is the superintendent at Lockhart Independent School District in Lockhart, Texas. Dr. Libby Cope is the health director of the Sophie Trettevick Indian Health Center of the Makah tribe in Neah Bay, Washington. Tim Lampkin is a CEO of Higher Purpose Company, a nonprofit that supports rural entrepreneurs in Mississippi. And Kim Phinney is a youth practitioner and the senior fellow at the Center for Rural Strategies. And she was organizing the National Rural Assembly, which sadly had to be postponed to September due to COVID. And again, Edyael Casaperalta I’m an attorney that serves underrepresented communities in telecommunications law matters and I’m based in Denver.But now to hear from our panelists. So to get us started as Superintendent Estrada, take it away.

Mark Estrada: Good afternoon. Thank you for the invitation to be here first and foremost. So I want to tell you a little bit about our community. So here in Lockhart, independent school district, we actually serve the vast majority of Caldwell County in Texas, kind of central Texas located. I believe we had a map, I’m not sure if that’s showing. Located outside of Austin, about 25 five miles outside of Austin.

My school district is well over 300 square miles, so we have a lot of area to cover. About 60% of the students in our school district live in rural areas outside of the city of Lockhart proper. So most of our kids are bused to school. So like many small towns we have a beautiful town square in the city of Lockhart. But the majority of the kids in our district actually live outside in the rural areas.

We are in a district that primarily serves underserved populations. About 75% of our students do qualify for free and reduced lunch. And we actually feed all of them though that’s another subject. I’m very proud of that fact. Everybody gets free lunch and breakfast in our district. A lot of our students are English language learners as well. About 75% of our students are English language learners and live, especially in the more northeast part of the county that you see in the picture there.

We have about a 40% of the county outside of Lockhart is a dead zone, so there’s currently not any service providers there. So a lot of school districts, and I’ve talked to a lot of superintendents especially recently, don’t understand that access doesn’t exist for some people. And when I talked to them about some of the issues that we have in connecting our kids and our families they throw out ideas like, “Well, just give them a hotspot.” Well, they don’t understand that a hotspot doesn’t work when you have nothing to connect to for that hotspot. So we’ve educated a lot of our surrounding areas certainly that are more urban.

The response to COVID-19 has really pushed us to have some urgency around connectivity. We’ve been looking at for a little over two years, how we can connect our students who live out in the rural areas of Caldwell County. And last week actually purchased a building tower so that we could connect everyone, 100% percent of our county will have high speed internet connections using actually our school district bandwidth and internet structure. So it’ll be very fast and our parents and students, and our staff quite frankly, who live in some of these communities around town.

And so we’re very excited about the work that we’re doing in the district, but it did take a lot of work in finding someone the right vendor who would partner with us in this work. Because unfortunately a lot of folks weren’t as interested in serving a rural community because of probably financial reasons, obviously. But we did find a partner who we’re going to partner with to build a seven towers across the county to cover our entire county, and Caldwell County hasn’t been done before. So we’re very excited about that moving forward and what that does for our kids and our families.

Edyael Casaperalta: Thank you, Superintendent. I have so many questions, and we’ll chime in when we open the conversation. Now, Dr. Libby Cope, would you like to go on?

Dr. Libby Cope: Absolutely, yes. My name is Dr. Libby Cope. I’m the health director with the Kwih-dich-chuh-ahtx, the People of the Cape, also known as the Makah tribe. We’re out here in Cape Flattery in Neah Bay area, so I also sent in some maps. But what I like to do is show people, if you can imagine Washington State, we’re out here on the most northwest tip. So about four and a half hours outside of Seattle, which is our nearest level one trauma center at Harbor View. And then we’ve got Forks is our closest community regional hospital and that’s about 70 minutes because you have to go on a long windy road. It would be much faster if we could just fly there, which we can sometimes when the weather is nice, we do get helicopter flight in. And then the other level, level three trauma center at Olympic Medical Center is about an hour and a half via ambulance in the other direction.

So to paint the picture, we’re a little bit more remote than rural, we’ve got about 1,200 people here year round and then it fluctuates up to about 2,000 during the summer. Our user population for our healthcare system is about 2,256 so we serve Makahs who are living here on the reservation as well as Makahs living off the reservation as well as the whole community. So we are the point of care for any emergency or urgent needs, and then provide primary care as well as behavioral health and dental. And we have several community health services including a youth center as well.

What else? A number of our residents are under the age of 18, over 50%. and then I will say that as far as telehealth is impacted, this is an ongoing issue. Of course, it predates COVID-9 in the before times. We’ve tried quite a bit to have telehealth through initially it was telepsychiatry and we worked out with University of Washington to have one of their psychiatrists see our patients here and it didn’t work because of internet connectivity issues. So this is an issue that comes up pretty regularly.

One other thing that is related to our location is that we are of course in the tsunami hazard zone. So while we’re having this COVID-19 emergency, it’s not lost to all of us that doesn’t prevent an earthquake from happening at any time. And so we’re kind of constantly in tsunami preparation. But right now our medical facilities, all of them, are in the tsunami hazard zone and we can’t move them. We’ve had a project for over 13 years to try to relocate them, but we actually can’t due to not having broadband or internet infrastructure outside of the tsunami zone. So that’s I guess kind of wrapped up.

Edyael Casaperalta: Thank you Dr. Cope for introducing us to the challenges that you guys were already experiencing and how the terrain makes it more challenging. And now Tim Lampkin, could you join us?

Tim Lampkin: Thank you. Again my name is Tim Lampkin. We work with black entrepreneurs across Mississippi, mostly in rural Mississippi, in the Mississippi Delta region, which is about 18 counties in northwest Mississippi. We work with black farmers, black artists, traditional businesses. And what we’ve been seeing here in Clarksdale where we’re based is that there has been a huge impact, particularly on our economy as you can see the stats the majority of our community is African-Americans. We already are struggling in terms of poverty rates. And that picture is actually a recent picture that I took a couple of days ago. And typically right now you would be seeing people in the street because we’re heavily based on festivals. So we have about 20 festivals a year where people from all over the world come to Clarksdale because we’re known as the home of the blues.

Being a tourism economy and also looking at the other main industries that have been impacted such as education, health and gaming industries, most of all those industries have been impacted. And we work with primarily businesses that sometimes rely on those sectors to generate revenue for their businesses, and a lot of them have been impacted. Several of them had to completely close due to a local ordinance that had been passed as well as state laws that had been passed to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

Right now our complete team with 10 people were working remotely and we consider ourselves a tech savvy team. But knowing that all the people that are working from home now we’re actually having impact in terms of the technology speed and the tools that we were using prior to COVID-19. And so being able to serve about a hundred businesses across the state, leveraging technology has been a challenge in this time because so many people are using different platforms to stay connected.

One thing that I wanted to also highlight is that because we work with farmers, many of them are kind of fourth or fifth generation farmers and don’t necessarily have the capital to make the investments to get new technology that could potentially run off of internet access. But even if they did, the speed would be completely slow to ensure that they’re actually getting the production and the return on investment for the equipment that they can purchase.

The other thing that I’ll mention too is that we’re seeing a lot of our entrepreneurs try to shift to online or creating other mobile platforms to sell their products or services. But again, with limited technology, there is a delay. They’re running into glitches to provide services to their customers. And because we work in urban and rural Mississippi, you’re definitely seeing more of the urban entrepreneurs in the Jackson, Mississippi metro area being a little bit more productive in this time because of the broadband infrastructure that’s in place compared to what’s in place here in the rural Mississippi Delta.

Edyael Casaperalta: Thanks Tim for that overview. And now Ms. Phinney, would you want to talk to us about opportunity youth?

Kim Phinney: Sure. My name is Kim Phinney and with my colleague Kathy Moxon we’ve been working for nearly 20 years on issues that affect rural and native young people in their communities and the programs that work with them. In particular, we’ve had a focus on rural and native opportunity youth. So when we use the words opportunity youth or use that language we’re reclaiming the language that’s often used and referred to as disconnected youth.

So they’re low income young people that are ages 16 to 24 that are out of school and out of work. They dropped out of school as a result of a myriad of barriers that we could hold a whole separate livestream for multiple days about. Often we think of opportunity youth as being located in urban communities, but in fact rural and native communities have the highest percentage of opportunity youth. These young people with a little over 20% being in our communities compared to about 14% in urban communities.

And just to help folks connect the dots, it follows the trajectory that the young people have grown up by and large in poverty, and that the rural childhood poverty rates are similar with about 23% national rates for rural childhood poverty versus 17% for urban communities. But the most persistent poverty counties, all of which are rural, here childhood poverty rates are 50% higher. And that’s where the programs that we’ve been working with are… I think the other thing that’s important to know in all of this conversation why we share is that these young people really want a chance to be connected to their communities. While they are labeled as disconnected, they want that. They want the opportunities for leadership and service, education and reliable employment.

One of our projects has been working with a range of local practitioners in these communities that are leading education and workforce training programs, models such as YouthBuild, ConservationCorps, AmeriCorps are all designed to provide education training services. So for this conversation, we interviewed in-depth five of them about their experiences over the last few weeks.

I think one of the things to say right away is that broadband is the huge headline that keeps happening and it’s an important one. As you know, my fellow panelists are naming, but when we’re having an education conversation, it is treated as if we can just solve broadband, then we will have solved the education issues for more young people. And in our case, the programs that we talked to, broadband is critical. And I’ll talk about that for a few minutes, but it is not at the top of the list of barriers and most pressing requests from these programs.

The programs we talked to are located in Appalachia, Pennsylvania, rural Oregon, rural California, Northern California and rural Vermont. The first thing to note is that these programs were expected to… They received no guidance. Unlike at least schools, local schools do, or other systems received guidance from their local districts, from their state offices, these programs, there’s ways that when they’re serving opportunity youth, they exist outside any particular system.

So, from the federal agencies, for the most part, they receive very little guidance and they were expected to just resume programming with young people virtually, so distance learning, as well as to move forward with recruitment virtually. And much of this did not mesh with the realities. In touching on the points of coverage and access and the response that they did, all five of the communities we talked to, the coverage is mixed.

So, the programs reported delayed if they’re right in their offices where the young people would normally come to the program, they, generally speaking, have coverage, they have broadband they’re able to provide. That is a learning too for the programs. But the moment you step outside, so they’re larger service area across the county or counties, you’re in very small communities, unincorporated communities, whatever language one wants to use there. And just the ability to have coverage is mixed.

The other thing that is important to note here is that many of the young people don’t have cell service either, unless they’re right at the office. One program reported that only one of the staff members, who’s all the staff were supposed to be working from home, and only one of the staff members in that program has actual cell reception at their house.

So, this is obviously an immediate barrier just with this assumption of providing distance learning and programming for young people. The bigger issue is access in hardware. And so, even if coverage was available, financially, the young people were not in a position to be able… They cannot afford to buy internet access. They don’t have the resources of the fees, and their families cannot afford to access. Four of the five programs reported that their young people just didn’t have access.

The fifth program said when their young people have stable housing, for the most part, they are able to actually… The situation is such they’re in Oregon that those young people do actually have internet access where they’re living. But when the young people were homeless or their housing was not stable, which was a common theme for most of the programs, then even if they were able to find ways to connect young people up, their housing situation is unstable and it’s either overcrowded or they’re couch-surfing or all the factors that go into these issues for residency for young peoples. They’re not able to guarantee them consistent, reliable broadband.

Edyael Casaperalta: What I hear is that there are existing challenges that the opportunity youth communities are already facing that are now become enhanced. And lack of access.

Kim Phinney: Right, and with the expectation that they’re supposed to provide distance learning, continuing the programming in the way that they would be doing it except offer distance learning.

Edyael Casaperalta: I think taking on that point of what was already a challenge, I’d like to open up that conversation to everyone since everyone already, give us a quick introduction to where you’re coming from. I want to spend a little bit of time talking about what was the situation already in your community, that as Kim points out, and now you’re expected to just do what you were doing before but online. And so, before we start having that conversation, I do want to take a moment to remind people listening that you can send us your questions via YouTube comments, so below the video, or you can send them via Twitter using the hashtag rural conversations. We’ll be monitoring those two places to figure out what you guys want to learn.

And so, going back to the conversation now, we’re just going to have, I think. Feel free to jump in when you feel like something really resonates with what’s going on in your community. But I do want to go back to Superintendent Estrada and Dr. Cope and Tim. Kim brought up a really important point, this was already a problem. So, can you tell us a little bit more about how this connectivity was already a challenge in your communities?

Mark Estrada: Sure. As, as I mentioned, we’ve been looking at addressing the connectivity issue for a couple of years prior to this COVID-19 for a couple of reasons. One, I think that, in the education landscape, but I’m hearing from Tim and from Libyan and from Kim that we share some things in terms of the lack of maybe hope and social capital by not being connected. Whether you’re an entrepreneur or trying to build a hospital, when these things become barriers, it can lower your level of hope and certainly disconnect you from the people and things that are out there that can help you move beyond your situation.

So, as a school district, we’ve been looking at tackling this issue. And internally, you mentioned earlier, doing what we have always been doing, but doing it from distance learning. And I would argue that school districts across the country, and certainly in Lockhart ISD, we have been moving towards leveraging technology for quite some time. And this just started with not just training teachers, but changing the mindset of what education looks like, how you can leverage technology. Of course, always valuing and realizing that the teacher is first and foremost and all that work.

So, we’ve done a number of things, the last four years, of redesigning what education it looks like in our district, not knowing that a major crisis like this would happen. But now that it has happened, it positioned us to really pivot very quickly. One, because our staff had the capacity and the training to do so compared to other districts, where maybe the teachers had a different mindset. And then, also just the lack of capacity and skill sets to go to distance learning.

But we see the connectivity county-wide as a final step, I think, of connecting with kids and ensuring that we’re engaging them and their families through the education process, whether it’s there in the national crisis or when things are back to normal, if that ever happens or what even that means. So, I just think it’s a complex issue that doesn’t have a clear starting time or end time. It’s just the work about of doing everything to disrupt the inequities that systemically have being created over a number of years in our country.

Edyael Casaperalta: Dr. Cope, would you expand a little on the connectivity challenges that were already existing before COVID?

Dr. Libby Cope: Yeah, absolutely. The connectivity issues, we currently have a wellness center that was built in 2014 that is outside of the tsunami zone, but that does not have broadband to it. That’s where all of our behavioral health, including our recovery services, our community health, our physical therapy, massage, acupuncture, all of those services function out of that building. And at this time and, and since that building has been there in 2014, they do not have adequate internet.

So, that means that our counselors and those practitioners are either having to come in on the weekends to finish their chart notes. Sometimes, it takes them about an hour to power on to get onto the server in the morning. And that can lead to pretty big delays in even getting the day started. And some days, the internet just doesn’t work at all there. So, we built that building hoping that we could someday bring the rest of our healthcare services up to that area. And that’s where we’re completely stuck because we can’t move any of our facilities up there until we’ve got that fiber internet structure.

And so, looking at the facilities that we have right now, we don’t have really good cell phone coverage in the wellness center or where the medical clinic is. That’s about two miles apart from each other. So, we can’t really use hotspots. Some days, the internet doesn’t work at our clinic either. We are able to bring in broadband from the tribal mean complex, but it goes over water. Apparently, that generates some lack of reliability there. And so, again, we frequently don’t have any internet at the clinic.

We have the power go out pretty regularly too. So, that makes everything go. We have cell phone power outages at least once a month. And so, it’s either the internet’s out or the power’s out or cell phone’s out a couple of times a month. So, I think we’re all pretty resilient and used to that and flexible and patient with each other around those issues. But when it comes to tele-health, we have something about existing connectivity issues. We’ve been wanting to do tele-health, I think, for a long time. And again I mentioned trying to do tele-psychiatry because that’s a huge need out here.

And we were not able to do it for a couple of reasons. The bandwidth made those sessions just not even useful for the patient. They had to come into our office at the wellness center and we would set them up. For one, office space is hard to find anyway. So, that booted out another practitioner. But then, also, the connectivity made those sessions so that people didn’t like them and they stopped coming.

But we’ve had requests to do other services that way, but we can’t do it just because that’s the constant thing that happens when we ask, “Well, have you tried tele-health?” And we’re like, “Yes, tried it. It didn’t work.” But in addition to psychiatry, there’s very few psychiatrists out here on the peninsula. I mentioned at the beginning that we’re four and a half hours outside of Seattle, which is where most of the specialists are. And psych is that the biggest need for that. And so, we just don’t have very many of them out here.

Right now, if you need a psychiatrist], you’re probably going to Seattle or Tacoma. And that’s a huge chunk of time and it’s a day. And we pay for our patients who are income-eligible for that time or we drive them. So, it’s multiple people’s salaries and multiple hundreds of thousands of dollars is spent on vouchers and gas. And if we’re not transporting them, we’re relying on them having a reliable vehicle.

And so, there’s probably between 10 and 20, at least, of those kinds of services happening per week. And we would really like to be able to save a lot of people time… before even COVID-19 happened because we can talk about that later, about how that has shifted even that process. But really, the amount of time… And it’s not even healthy to be in the car for that long. A lot of people would go to get a chiropractor. We don’t have a chiropractor out here. They’d go to Port Angeles to get chiropractic service. And then, by the time they get back, they’re not feeling well again.

Edyael Casparelta: They need it again.

Dr. Libby Cope: Yeah. And I’m not suggesting you can do chiropractor over broadband, but certainly some interim services or something that the chiropractor would, if we brought them in, they would be at that wellness center and their services could be a lot more [inaudible 00:33:41] enhanced if they could chart in less than an hour. But it takes an hour to chart with their current [inaudible 00:33:46].

Edyael Casaperalta: I want to pick up on something that you said in relation to the challenges currently exist in rural communities and remote areas and tribal communities. You mentioned either we have no cell coverage or the power goes out. And I know that, right now, Tim, you and I spoke before and the power has been out in your community. And I know, for example, in Kentucky, the power has been out for this week. So, what are you supposed to do when the power’s out and you’re supposed to do tele-health or tele-work or studying at distance. Can you tell us a little bit about what’s going on?

Tim Lampkin: Yeah, recently, we had a series of storms come through this past Easter Sunday that knocked out power in the entire county for several hours. My grandparents were out of power for about almost 24 hours. And so, thinking about their health conditions and all the things that they need to stay healthy, it’s been really interesting to see how COVID-19 coupled with another kind of natural disaster has accelerated the existing issues that we have. And of course, compared to urban areas of the response time and the resources that are available, are just completely different.

And so, I think as we’re talking about broadband, of course, there’s been larger conversations about just an entire infrastructure improvement in rural communities compared to urban markets. We have also seen some of our entrepreneurs have been requesting there’s no support from us because they don’t have access to internet at home or because they have to reduce their expenses trying to figure out how they can leverage our free resources.

Prior to COVID-19, our office is open to the public, and so several entrepreneurs will come there to use computers and technology to print, to fax, to sign contracts, get things done for their business. We run into a lot of issues when we’re visiting our black farmers because they live in a more rural, outside in the county. And so, several times, we’ve tried to reach those farmers and we’re not able to reach them. We’ve had to do wellness check-ins on them just to see if they’re okay because it’s been so hard to get in touch with them. And so, that’s also creating additional barriers in this time coupled with what we’re seeing with COVID-19.

There has been some progress in our state, but it’s very slow progress. There was a bill that was signed back in 2019 to allow cooperatives to start to offer broadband technology. However, that’s moving very slow. And we’re also worried about the inequities that exist in the existing infrastructure of cooperatives here in Mississippi. With majority of the states being African-American, how does representation show up in those cooperatives from the leadership and actually who’s being served by those cooperatives?

And so, we’re looking at all the existing issues and now they’re just accelerated because of what’s happening and the disparities that already exists. And it’s also creating more stress on the entrepreneurs that we work with in terms of getting access to financial services that were available. And because we live in a state that has one of the highest populations of unbanked people, a lot of folks are still trying to figure out how to create a relationship with their banking institution. And so, a lot of our entrepreneurs had to adjust how they even do banking for their business, because the lack of technology, the financial institutions don’t have the technology available to allow them to actually do some of the day-to-day business functions. So it’s a lot of adjusting happening in this moment.

Edyael Casaperalta: What I’m really hearing, picking up, right, is that we have … One of the major challenges is that the infrastructure is simply not there. It hasn’t been there, and during this time of emergency, it’s not there. Maybe it can be deployed in a week if everybody has funding, but it won’t be deployed tomorrow at noontime. So I think another question that I want you guys to also talk about a little bit more is access to Internet, as you’ve discussed, means having the actual connection, having the network, but another side of that is also having the equipment to be able to … If somebody can sell you a service, then do you have the equipment at home, right, and can you start talking about that? You’ve all touched on that, to some degree, but I do want to expand that conversation a little bit. So you guys want to chime in on that?

Kim Phinney: Sure, I’ll pick up from that. So once we talked about coverage and access, like we all just did, this is the huge challenge for our programs and young people is that the young people just simply didn’t have the devices needed, right? So all of this is in the context of continued learning, distance learning. So a couple pieces with that, the young people, at most … So they didn’t have laptops. One young person had laptop, had a program. Many of them didn’t even have cell phones that they could use. So this assumption that all learning was supposed to move online was not feasible. Programs managed to cobble together funds or donations on the fly for laptops, for Chromebooks, for some type of tablet, right, and they drove those around and delivered, not unlike what many school districts have had to do across the country, but, at the very least school districts have a process for making that happen. A funding line item was identified.

Currently, one of the challenges for these programs is that they desperately needed before, and now it’s just exacerbated, as you were talking about, Tim and Dr. Cope, is they need a change in the supportive services policy, under budget. So right now, to use that money to spend on hardware for young people, they have to go through several iterations of budget requests and budget modifications and approvals, and none of that moves quickly. They need to be authorized to just be able to spend the funds.

Even still, with these … So the devices have been distributed, but with it came a myriad of challenges. One is the young people didn’t know how to use this technology. So yes, there’s the hidden layer for the young people they’ve been able to work with. This is employability skills and learning, but, also, they’re in homes with chaos or just simply crowded conditions. They’re not the conditions for learning. They’re under a lot of pressure for their younger siblings and other family members to use these devices.

The biggest thing, and I want to touch back on this, if I can, that, Dr. Cope, you were mentioning, which is the mental health piece for this, so, for our young people, the device, like all of this, is beside the point because of the situation, the circumstances that they’re living in. These were underlying issues, but now, with COVID, 50 to 75% of them our seriously food insecure. They don’t have transportation to even get to those sources. Plus, being out of school, 16- to 24-year-olds, they live completely outside the system of food access.

So what school systems are able to do or early childcare, where they’re able to access SNAP dollars or other funding to provide food, our young people can’t do that. So, for instance, today, I was sent this link of, “Here’s an access to how young people can use an online tool to access where food is.” But, I mean, it’s good. It’s important. I’m not saying that that’s not a good thing to have. But, in these situations, for 20% of the young people in our communities, it’s irrelevant, right? They can’t get there. They can’t access it, and they’re not the targeted population to even be able to receive that food.

So a second huge ask around that spending supportive services policy is open up that line item. Programs are not allowed, under DOL guidance right now, to use supportive services line items to actually purchase the food. They have to get donations. They have to do all kinds of crazy things to [inaudible 00:43:20], and it’s a simple choice. I’m not saying it’s a simple fix, but it’s a choice that is being made at the federal level to not allow access to SNAP dollars for out-of-school youth, even when they’re enrolled in youth education and training program and to not then allow the purchase of food.

Edyael Casaperalta: Dr. Koch will continue that. Have you seen challenges with members of your community being able to access devices or resources that will allow them to continue using tele-health, or if it’s possible?

Dr. Libby Cope: Yeah, absolutely. I think very few of our members, our community members have personal computers. Most people who are fluent or using technology are doing it at work. So those would be the tribal employees or our healthcare employees, and if they’re not employed by the tribe … We have a 50% unemployment rate, which doesn’t reflect any subsistence or treaty rights economic activity. But, in any case, so most people don’t have personal computers, and I think that the kids I know at the school, most of them either do have Chromebooks or they got them as soon as things changed. So I think the kids are doing okay. But as far as our staff goes, most of our staff didn’t have any computers at all. So, suddenly, on March 16th, we had to have them all working from home, and they had no computers. To do the tele-health, they need to have a computer at home as well.

I want to touch on two … So, actually, I guess two things. We are tapped into the state’s EOC right now, and everybody’s requesting personal protective equipment, PPE, which I know … I can tell from all the calls they’re out of it. We’re going to request as much as we want, and we’re not going to get any. But, a couple of weeks ago, I was like, “Nobody’s requesting computers.” So I just requested 35 laptops, and I just became really vocal about our need for laptops. We got 65 laptops yesterday.

So I will say that people are responding to it, and that’s probably a bonus to being located in western Washington. I think most folks along that I-5 corridor, that’s not something that they’re needing right now and so they have an excess of. So yes, that was something that we desperately needed, and I was really loud about it. Luckily, it’s something that not a lot of people in Tacoma and Seattle need, and so they were able to loan us a whole bunch.

But they’re still on loan, and this is a marathon and not a sprint. So we’re still looking for funding to be able to buy all of those laptops. I really think all of our employees … and, honestly, I’d like to see everyone have a computer in their home so that they can use that.

So yes, that was definitely an issue. It did get resolved, at least a big portion of it, yesterday for our staff. But, again, once they get the computer at home, they may or may not have Internet access. But at least they can … We’ve got several trainings that I’ve posted to our website for staff to do from home, and then they can use it just for some other tasks that we’ve been working on.

Then the other thing I wanted to bring up … Oh, training. So somebody mentioned even just knowing how to use computers. So a lot of our staff are very … What is the word that I’m looking for? Struggle, I think, with just with new technology, and so even training for how do you use Excel and Word and Google Docs, and especially Google Docs right now, when we’re sharing so much.

Then most of us on our staff are on the IHS email, which is extremely difficult to access from home and very hard to keep organized. So we’re trying to transition. So now, in the middle of this, I’ve had to transition my email address. Anyways, so access to the equipment, as well as just having time to train and learn how to use different software programs that could make our lives easier, working from home.

Edyael Casaperalta: I want to pick up on that to ask one question I’m really curious of Superintendent Estrada. Then a lot of great questions have come in that are more specific, and I really want to get to them. But Mr. Estrada, so you mentioned that a lot of the students that you work with in your district are ESL students. Right? So when people started saying, “We’re going to now work from home,” I’m a former ESL student myself, and so I thought, immediately, my mom would have to have trusted me that I was actually doing work, if she could even stay home. Right? A lot of parents in low-income communities don’t have the types of jobs that allow them to work from home.

So then when I think about this situation and my childhood, well, one, we didn’t have computers. So does a family of two or three, right, have enough devices? Then, also, is there a language barrier that you might be facing, that now the parent has to trust that the kid … Obviously, I’m a very good kid. I was a very good kid, and I did my work. But some additional challenges come up when everything has to be done from home. Have you encountered some of that in your district?

Mark Estrada: Absolutely. Yeah. So, I mean, we certainly ensure that everything that we do is in English and Spanish. I mean, everything that we send out that’s on our website, I mean, everything is in English and Spanish. We have ensured that every kid gets a device. So we had about 70% of our kids in the district check out a device, and we use Chromebooks primarily. Some of our younger kids, we use iPads, but almost everyone is using Chromebooks, and that’s what we’ve checked out.

Earlier, I mentioned that, as a district, we shift and redesigned what instruction looked like, going back four years now. I think if we wouldn’t have done that … So now our kids are used to certain online tools. They understand. As a kindergartener, they can pop open a Chromebook, go to their Google Classroom, access their assignments, submit their assignments, even at kindergarten.

So that has helped with now transitioning to distance learning, to where parents doesn’t have to … We actually had to tell our parents, “Did you ask your kid? You’re trying to do it for your kid. Just ask them. Let them go, sign in,” and it’s actually … I’ve helped some parents just to back off a little, but I know that, in many places, that’s not the case. They’re still doing very direct instruction. Now to ask them to do direct instruction at home creates a host of issues, and the parents are stressed. Not to say that none of our parents are stressed. I mean, that’s obviously not true. But I think because of the work we’ve done in the last four years, it’s made it a little easier at home, because the kids are well-versed in using the technology, and they have the same technology that they had been using at school. Because the towers aren’t functional yet, so we do have some families who are doing paper-based work, which is not a good option. I mean, the first week we started, we actually had to talk to parents like, “No, you have access to the Internet. Let’s give it a try. I know you’re a little concerned with using the laptop or Chromebook, but let’s give it a try, because paper’s not helping your child learn anything other than practicing what they already know or just practicing things incorrectly. Now they’re teaching themselves the wrong way to do something.” Right? So we’ve talked …

Edyael Casaperalta: As long as they figure it out.

Mark Estrada: Yeah, through osmosis, they’ll figure it out. Yeah. But no, I think our parents, for the most part, things are kind of leveling out now that we’ve been doing it for a couple weeks, but at first, certainly had some questions. All of our or a lot of our teachers are bilingual, so they’re able to … and a lot of our campus administrators, certainly at campuses that have bilingual programming, are bilingual. So they’re able to communicate with parents. Again, it all goes back to if you had those relationships prior to this crisis, things are going more smoothly than if you didn’t.

Edyael Casaperalta: Thank you. I do want to start asking some questions that have come in from listeners. Just as a reminder, send in your questions via YouTube comments, or you’ve seen the hashtag #ruralconversations on Twitter. A lot of questions have come in about what can be done. So, first, I want to make a plug. Next week, next Wednesday, we will have a conversation that analyzes government response, particularly from the Federal Communications Commission, and whether the actions they’ve taken have been helpful in rural communities and native communities during this time.

Dr. Cope, one of the actions that they’ve made is actually to create a COVID tele-health program that funds equipment. So we should talk, and you should also join the webinar next week. But one of the questions that’s come in that people really want to find out is how Lockhart ISD was able to so quickly decide that they were going to build several towers to be able to provide service to the community and if the school is going to own the infrastructure, or is the vendor going to own that network? This also comes because a lot of schools use the program E-Rate, and they feel E-Rate typically doesn’t allow you to do that. How did you figure it out?

Mark Estrada: Yeah, well, that’s the first thing. I mean, if we can get E-Rate to allow us to be reimbursed, I mean, that would solve a lot of issues for school districts serving rural communities, certainly. But, as you know, you can’t use E-Rate. You can use E-Rate, though, for the actual … and I don’t know the correct technical terms, but our district Internet that we will be pushing out, that we have on our campuses as well, all the fiber connecting to those towers, that is E-Rateable. So we’ll certainly be using E-Rate for those things. But you can’t use E-Rate to build towers.

So we were looking at building the towers ourselves for the last couple years and couldn’t get over the cost of that, couldn’t make it to where we could afford it. So we started looking for vendors and pitching the idea to them of there’s not any access here. It’s a good opportunity for you to come in to partner with us. We will certainly help you with the infrastructure costs and commit to a long-term commitment to where we’ll use it. The vendors actually will own the towers and have the ability to lease to other people, if they choose. But we’re guaranteed to have it for at least ten years, and then we’ll go on five year cycles after that.

So we’re locked in for ten years. But, essentially, we were able to build seven towers at a cost that it would have cost for us to build one tower, about half a million dollars, and we’re locked in for ten years in doing that. We also have some structures or things built into those contracts that allow us to generate some revenue to the school district as well, like referral fees and things like that, to where I expect the district will be in a good financial situation.

But yeah, to build a tower and own it outright as a government agency right now, I don’t know if that’s realistic, because everything that we’re seeing just for one was about half a million dollars. But, like I said, we’re getting seven right now for that cost, and we’ll be locked in for ten years.

There’s a whole bunch of other technical things that go into it. But the yearly fee per family or per house that we’ll connect to is a little less than $30 a year. So we’ve priced that out, obviously. That’s a good deal. Again, we’ll be using our high-speed connection that the district owns, and our bandwidth is sufficient for us to connect to every home.

Edyael Casaperalta: When you say you’ll provide service, so will the school be an Internet provider to the families, or are you providing it free of cost?

Mark Estrada: It’s free of cost, yes. So we’ve talked and surveyed all of our families on who has access and who doesn’t, for two reasons, because you can’t afford it or because it just doesn’t exist and we need the infrastructure. After doing that, we’ve identified we have about 700 families who either don’t have access or can’t afford it. And then anyone else, I mean, if every family in our district were to say that, “We really can’t afford it,” we would be able to provide it for them at the school district’s cost at the rates that we’re getting from this partner.

Edyael Casaperalta: That’s fantastic. And just one last question on the E-rate front. So, when COVID happened, the FCC did release a statement saying that schools could leave their network on, essentially, that uses E-rate to be able to reach their students. But was that a good enough solution for you guys? Because that meant you had to come to the parking lot.

Mark Estrada: No, not really. And we had done that. All of our parking lots, the perimeters of all of our schools we were putting the internet out there. But, as Kim mentioned earlier, if you’re in a rural community you can’t drive … or you can’t walk 20 miles to go to a parking lot to sit there and use the internet. You can’t walk 50 miles to go get food. So, that’s why it’s important for us to connect them for food and we also do deliveries. So, we’re doing deliveries countywide, and we’re given over 10,000 meals every day to our kids. But, again, I agree with Kim that it’s not realistic to think that people can get to those places, especially kids who maybe our home alone by themselves, if you’re not connecting them and doing that for them.

Edyael Casaperalta: Thank you. And Tim, what are you seeing business owners right now, how are they connecting? What are they doing when they do connect?

Tim Lampkin: Most of them they’re using, if they don’t have internet access through a provider, they’re using a cell phone, the hotspot on their cell phone, but that’s even spotty. I’m using the hotspot on my phone right now, and it’s very spotty. And the entrepreneurs are trying their best to adjust to this right now. Honestly, just from a business standpoint, we are really anticipating that some of our entrepreneurs are not going to survive this, particularly, because they were already bootstrapping their business and trying to get access to capital before. And so, now with this closure of several businesses, particularly the businesses that are food-based, like restaurants, that didn’t have the extra cash to provide pickup or curbside delivery, a lot of them have closed. A lot of the other venues that have actual brick and mortar locations have completely closed. And because of the learning curve of taking your business from online that has also created some barriers for entrepreneurs.

And so, what we’re doing right now we have a fellowship program that we have been running for the last a year. And we’re in conversations right now to provide those fellows that do not have laptops and computers, access to those to continue working on their business, and pivoting as possible. In addition to that, we’re also developing some strategies with some of our partners to provide some direct funds to the businesses that would be able to support any expenses that they’re dealing with right now. A lot of them are also looking to actually change their entire business. So, I think you’re going to see more entrepreneurs going into kind of tech-enabled businesses because so many people are scared to actually reopen locations.

And given what has happened here recently with the storm, a lot of the businesses that we work with have also been impacted by those storms. And so, I’m trying to look into the future and be optimistic as possible about what’s happening. But the underlying conditions that were already in place, particularly for black entrepreneurs here in Mississippi, were already issue. And so, we’ve been just really trying to figure out the solution to address those underlining challenges.

Edyael Casaperalta: Right. And this conversation today is not focused necessarily on discussing the solutions. We do have a conversation that will happen next week that will discuss what has been done, what should be done. But what we wanted to do today was really focus on what’s happening on the ground, what are the experiences in rural and Native communities. But based on those experiences, you already know what needs to change. And so, I want to take a minute to hear from you guys, in the last few minutes of this conversation, about now that you’re seeing all of this unfold in your community, what’s one thing, or what do you think needs to change to be able to actually support the communities that you’re working with in the way that you want to support them? So, Superintendent Estrada already said, “Well, E-rate rules need to change, so that schools can actually build, and people can be connected at home.” So you should say that again. But from you guys, what do you think what would actually help you in the next few weeks, or months, and in the long-term?

Dr. Libby Cope: I’ll just go, infrastructure. Yeah. I mean, I just need to not have to choose between you spending our dollars on healthcare, actual healthcare services, and building that fiber internet up the tsunami zone, yeah. That’s it.

Tim Lampkin: Yeah, I’ll echo that and say that, just thinking about how we rethink ownership of the infrastructure. So, looking at models that could be community-owned, community-driven, community-led. And also I think that’s going to be another opportunity to employ local people, give them new skills, but also just having that control, and be able to move quickly in disasters, and things that’s happening right now versus waiting on big corporations to make a decision whether or not they want to support our community. So, having some local ownership of that infrastructure that’s being built out.

Edyael Casaperalta: That’s a great point. Kim, what do you think would need to change for youth practitioners and opportunity youth in-

Kim Phinney: So, quickly echoing the infrastructure challenges that everyone else has named, but specifically two or three key requests our local programs have. One is immediately allow access to, to use the supportive services line items that they have in their budgets for DOL to allow them to purchase materials as needed, and to do that swiftly. And also access to food because hungry young people can’t focus and learn. And then, second is there actually needs to be some targeted public health education materials around this for young people. So, we didn’t have a chance to get that, but I’m just going to plop that in there.

And then, tied to that is the third ask, which is very clearly on the other side of this, that are that all of us are experiencing a global level of trauma as a result of this pandemic, but for young people that were already on the margins in each of our communities that there needs to be funding, that the response that these programs are going to need to have is going to need to be able to address that trauma. It’s going to need to be able to work across the sectors in new ways. So, like Dr. Cope was talking about, the need for telehealth, the mental health challenges going on for these young people right now due to what was already their circumstances, but now … So, they cannot be expected to return to school as usual to these types of programs as usual and there’s going to need to be some flexibility and availability of funding to really address their needs, broadband being but one piece of that.

Edyael Casaperalta: Thank you. And Superintendent Estrada, people really want to know how much does a tower cost and what’s the range of them?

Mark Estrada: I saw that comment in there. It’s a eight mile, I guess … what’s the right word? Radius, yeah. So yeah, it’s eight miles is what we currently have. And we paid about half a million dollars for a 10 year access to the seven towers.

Edyael Casaperalta: Right. And so, what would need to change for schools to be able to also help meet the needs of students at home?

Mark Estrada: Yeah, I agree with Dr. Cope. I mean, there’s no reason why that infrastructure shouldn’t be there. That infrastructure, I think, we need to advocate for at the federal level to ensure that we’re equipping the country with the infrastructure that we need.

Edyael Casaperalta: Well, I want to thank you guys so much for joining us. I think one of the things that I heard very strongly from everyone is that you all are having to field the absence of investment in rural communities, and you’re figuring out how to do that. Whether it is building towers, or asking for changes in federal, or state policies to help you actually do the work that you want to do, which is either provide telehealth, or make sure people are studying, support young people, or enhance entrepreneurship in your area. It’s clear that during this time with a lack of infrastructure, or substandard access to the internet it’s a lot more challenging. And we don’t expect you to have all the answers exactly of how to do it, except we all want to be trained by Superintendent Estrada on how we build our own towers, and negotiate with providers, so that we set up our own networks. But also, Tim, I think one of the points that you brought up was ownership with that infrastructure is critical because it allows us to make sure that we are building the networks that serve us, and not waiting for companies to decide that we’re worthy to be served. So, that’s an important point that I want to carry on to the next conversation.

So, like we said, today’s conversation was about your experiences. And for people listening, we want to hear about what’s going on in your rural community as well. So use the #ruralbroadband and #COVID-19 to tell us what’s going on. But also, next Wednesday we will have a panel of policy analysts that will discuss more specific programs, and actions that the FCC, and Congress has taken on rural broadband during the pandemic. Whether they are helping, whether there’s more to be done, like Dr. Cope and Superintendent Estrada have said there needs to be. So next Wednesday, again, at 4PM we’ll have that conversation, has the government response been adequate?

We also want to hear from all of you about whether you enjoyed this conversation, and how it was helpful, and what else do you want to learn? What else do you want to talk about? So, go ahead to the Rural Assembly has a survey that they put together really brief. Take a minute to answer us, and give us feedback. I think, it’s also going to be provided in the YouTube comments. And, like I said, tell us what’s going on in your community. And finally, remember that this conversation is being recorded, and we will provide the recording via the Rural Assembly website next … tomorrow, not next week, tomorrow. So, thank you so much. This is the Rural Assembly’s COVID-19 resource page, we have a lot of great information there designed to support rural and tribal communities during this time. And thank you so much panelists, this was awesome. Thank you for your time. And I guess we’ll see you all next week.

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