In response, Maine West, a coalition of local and regional groups, is providing mobile hotspots to help students in the Oxford Hills, the Bethel area, and the Rumford and River Valley areas to connect to online learning services.
“Schools have always called this the ‘homework gap,’” said Mike Wilson, senior program director of the Northern Forest Center, and coordinator of the Maine West coalition. “Lack of home internet connection keeps too many students from connecting with teachers, conducting research, and completing assignments. For many students and families, the sudden COVID-19 school closures expanded the homework gap into a canyon.”
The Maine West partnership began working in March to secure and distribute mobile hotspot devices that turn cellular phone signals into home wireless internet connections. With leadership by the Center and Community Concepts Finance Corporation, Maine West is now providing 200 mobile hotspots to enable students in the Oxford Hills (SAD 17), Bethel area (SAD 44), and the Rumford and River Valley areas (RSU 10 and 56) to make the crucial connection to the internet and online school services.
“The support from Maine West to provide these mobile hotspots for some of our families has greatly enhanced our ability to connect to all students during these challenging times,” said David Murphy, Superintendent of Schools in SAD 44 serving the Bethel area. “We were thrilled to receive these devices in a such timely fashion and to be able to provide additional remote learning support for the families and students who needed it the most.”
Within three weeks of the school shut-downs, Maine West raised more than $10,000 and built a partnership with the Maine-based National Digital Equity Center to provide area schools with mobile hotspots through the end of the school year. Project funding was provided by the Betterment Fund, the Northern Forest Center, and The River Fund Maine.
“Our hats are off to Maine West for recognizing this need and immediately putting together a program to help students during the COVID-19 shutdown,” said Jim Largess, director of The River Fund Maine. “We initially were focused on making sure internet cost was not a barrier for Bethel area students. Partnering with Maine West allowed us to expand that focus to students who simply don’t have home internet availability without a mobile hotspot.”
In addition to serving K-12 schools, the Maine West hotspot initiative is also supporting non-traditional learners such as Alana Bracket through adult education programs and the University College Centers in Rumford and South Paris.
Bracket, recipient of the Osher New Beginnings Scholarship, is a first-time college student at the University College Center in South Paris. She said she would not have been able to complete her very first college course this spring without the mobile hotspot provided by Maine West.
“High speed internet simply isn’t available for many people in rural communities, and others aren’t able to afford a home internet connection,” says Mia Purcell, vice president of economic development and impact at Community Concepts Finance Corporation. “No matter the reason, and particularly right now, no student should be prevented from learning because they can’t connect to the internet.”
Broadband Access and Adoption is one of three priority focal areas identified by Maine West partners as key to addressing persistent rural community challenges. The other priorities are Educational Aspirations and Active Communities. As part of the Maine West initiative, in 2019 the Northern Forest Center supported the purchase and installation of new computers, software, printers and wireless internet connections for 11 public libraries serving the Maine West region.
“Universal and affordable high-speed internet connectivity is vital to the success of rural communities in western Maine and across the state,” said the Center’s Wilson.
“As happy as we are to be helping rural students get connected to school during the COVID-19 shut down,” said Wilson, “we realize this is a temporary fix. The only way to truly address the digital divide is to start treating internet connectivity more like a utility and making it accessible and affordable for everyone.”
Maine West is a partnership of local and regional organizations dedicated to addressing systemic rural challenges and enhancing community well-being in western Maine through increased collaboration across the economic, education, health and conservation sectors.
With program coordination by the Northern Forest Center, Maine West partners include Community Concepts Finance Corp., Appalachian Mountain Club, Androscoggin River Watershed Council, Bethel Area Chamber of Commerce, CORE, Mahoosuc Pathways, The Trust for Public Land, Oxford County Wellness Collaborative, Western Foothills Land Trust, Appalachian Trail Conservancy, The University of Maine 4-H Center at Bryant Pond, Mahoosuc Land Trust, Region 9 Adult Education, Oxford County Resiliency Project, and River Valley Healthy Communities Coalition.
Top photo: Bethel School District staff deliver mobile hotspots to the Rumford School District for its students. Middle photo: Alana Bracket, a student in the adult education program at the University College Center in South Paris, was able to finish her first-ever college course because she received a hotspot for home internet connection. Bottom photo: Nathan Bellanceau of Locke Mills is one of several students in the Region 9 Adult Education Program who received a mobile hotspot.