When Cal Poly switched to virtual classes Spring quarter due to the COVID-19 pandemic, nutrition junior Valeria Diego moved back to her Sacramento home, where her parents had not been able to afford stable WiFi. 

Diego used Spectrum’s free public hotspot to get by. Then when summer classes were approaching, Diego and her sister, a senior at UC San Diego, gathered together enough money to afford a reliable internet connection — a switch that would be essential for keeping up with virtual classes. 

“During classes through Zoom, sometimes my internet would lag a lot, so the screen would freeze and I would just fall behind on what the professor was saying,” Diego said. “Instead of paying attention to what he was saying I was actually concerned with when the next glitch was gonna happen. That was always on my mind and prevented me from fully focusing.”

Now, a week into Fall quarter, Cal Poly students and staff are fostering cooperation and communication to work around technology barriers. 

The challenge of unstable WiFi

“It’s just sad to know that not all students are on the same financial level,” Diego said. “It’s unfair for the students who have to go through the stress of almost anticipating that connection failure. … Maybe some students don’t have trouble at all, but there is a group of people who are disadvantaged.”

Students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds consistently underperform in fully online classes, according to a 2019 study conducted by Spiros Protopsaltis, former US Department of Education Deputy Assistant Secretary for Higher Education and Student Financial Aid and Sandy Baum, a fellow at the Urban Institute think tank.

Even when students can afford to purchase WiFi, the connection is not always stable.

For animal science senior Aileen Godinez, she woke up one morning at home in LA during Spring quarter and found that her WiFi had gone out just a few hours before having to take a midterm. It did not come back on until later in the afternoon. 

“I emailed [my professor] right away, and I was scared because I thought he wouldn’t believe me,” Godinez said. “He was really understanding so that helped a lot. … I think he just made [the exam] available until the end of the week and it was still timed, but I could take it whenever the WiFi came back on.”

Godinez also contacted her WiFi company, Spectrum, who told her several other people were experiencing issues as well, though the company didn’t know why. 

In San Luis Obispo, Spectrum is ranked the second most popular internet provider. However, during Summer quarter, a handful of students struggled with the company’s WiFi while living in San Luis Obispo, environmental management and protection sophomore Tess McIntyre said. 

Godinez’s WiFi problems came up throughout her spring and summer classes, before moving to San Luis Obispo about a week ago. 

“Sometimes I wouldn’t be able to log on to the portal or Canvas, so I wouldn’t be able to study for the class either or access the lecture Zoom recordings,” Godinez said. 

But poor WiFi connection is not the only barrier. 

Heat-related electric power outages can occur randomly, while public safety power shutoffs (PSPS) have also been scheduled across the state during high winds in order to prevent wildfires from picking up. 

“When I was home I would watch the news, Univision 19, and a lot of Hispanic people and families would come on TV and talk about how [power outages] impact them negatively,” Diego said. “Whenever they would mention their location, I realized how close they were to me. I was kind of worried about whether my family was going to go through the same thing or not.” 

Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Finding solutions

Sociology professor Ryan Alaniz said he has experienced two power outages at his home since he began teaching at Cal Poly in August.

Alaniz said he uses his phone’s hotspot to get internet access, though it is not as fast and it is not an option for everyone. When he needs to lead a Zoom meeting, Alaniz takes the 25 minute drive to campus to use the university’s internet in his office. 

“[It is] challenging for faculty and students,” Alaniz said. 

Alaniz suggests that students email their professor as soon as possible and maybe even leave a message at the professor’s office phone. 

“Although professors are not checking their phones often, it does show that the student tried every means to communicate with their professor,” Alaniz said. 

Alaniz said that the extent to which a faculty member can be accommodating depends on the situation. As virtual classes has put many students in unique situations, some seem to hope professors are still understanding. 

“I think it all comes down to being empathetic,” Diego said. “[Professors] themselves are experiencing similar situations with connection problems. We all experience similar things and sometimes those things are out of our control. I was actually very happy to know that professors do want to help us and they understand that each student situation is different.”

As of last week, Spectrum Northwest Region Senior Director of Communications Bret Picciolo said that there had not been “significant service issues” in San Luis Obispo. 

“Our network continues to perform well on the downstream and upstream overall,” Picciolo said. “We continue to monitor the situation — and our network — closely and are poised to adjust resources as needed to provide the reliable internet and essential services our customers depend on.” 

Now, Diego lives in a residence hall on campus and uses Cal Poly’s WiFi service. On campus, students have access to eduroam, Cal Poly’s primary WiFi network, as well as multiple public outdoor WiFi options

Even before COVID-19, students struggled with Cal Poly WiFi, and some of those problems may continue into this year due to an increased reliance on the university’s internet. 

“[Last week] I was on a Zoom call for one of my organizations and it actually ended out of nowhere,” Diego said. “Everybody froze and then my computer just ended the call automatically. That’s something I’ve never experienced on campus but it happened then.” 

University Spokesperson Matt Lazier said representatives from the Dean of Students, Information Technology Services, Financial Aid and University Advising are all using one-on-one Zoom meetings and other resources to work with students experiencing technology and connectivity issues.

“Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, the university has asked all of its community members to be understanding, gracious and flexible with one another — especially if there are issues with technology or issues adapting to virtual systems or if individuals are experiencing stressors outside of the classroom,” Lazier said.

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