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No Home, No Wi-Fi: Pandemic Adds to Strain on Poor College Students

Mr. Sawyer, who wants to become a pastor, is using his time off to work for civil rights organizations and to fund-raise so that he can re-enroll in the spring and obtain a doctorate in theology. “It’s definitely a delay, but sometimes stumbling blocks come,” he said.

Many students like Mr. Sawyer have been looking for alternative ways to pay for their education. As the coronavirus was closing campuses this past spring, Rise, a student-led organization that advocates college affordability, created an online network to help students find emergency financial aid, apply for public benefits and locate food pantries.

Rise has continued to serve more than 1,000 students a month who are struggling with issues like paying rent, losing their jobs and lacking internet access, said Max Lubin, the organization’s chief executive. “We’re overwhelmed by the need,” he said.

Stable housing and healthy food were already major concerns before the pandemic. A 2019 survey found that 17 percent of college students had experienced homelessness in the past year, and about half reported issues such as difficulty paying rent or utilities. Nearly 40 percent lacked reliable access to nutritious food.

The coronavirus crisis worsened many of these challenges, according to a June report by the Hope Center, which found that nearly three out of five students surveyed had trouble affording basic needs during the pandemic.

Financial aid in the United States had already been stretched thin by the rising costs of tuition, room and board. At their maximum, need-based federal Pell grants cover just 28 percent of the total cost of attending a public college today, compared with more than half of that cost in the 1980s. State aid, while recovering somewhat since the Great Recession, still falls short of need, and state budgets have been further drained by the health crisis.

The CARES Act, passed by Congress in March, provided about $14 billion for higher education, with about half earmarked for students. But there were limits on who could receive it, and college students were ineligible for the $1,200 stimulus check that went to taxpayers.

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Northern Essex Community College turns idle parking lots into Wi-Fi hot spots

With nearly all its classes now virtual due to COVID-19, Northern Essex Community College has found a productive use for its largely idle parking lots, making them Wi-Fi hot spots for students and local residents.

The college in early September began offering free Wi-Fi service at six of the eight parking lots on its Haverhill and Lawrence campuses, enabling students and community members to study and work online in their parked vehicles. The lots are otherwise nearly empty because so few classes are meeting on campus.

The initiative is a response to a survey the college undertook last spring in which students said spotty Internet service at home and finding a quiet place to study were two of the main challenges they faced in adjusting to remote learning, according to Ricardo “Danny” Rivera, Northern Essex’s assistant director of client technology and media services.

“We’ve always wanted to do outdoor Wi-Fi,” Rivera said, noting that the college has many grassy areas — particularly on its Haverhill campus — where students like to sit and do their homework. But until the pandemic, there was no thought of using parking lots.

That idea arose this summer when Rivera happened to be working with a vendor on a planned upgrade to the college’s indoor Wi-Fi systems. When he learned about the results of the survey, it occurred to him and other officials that creating wireless service in the parking lots would be a good solution to the needs expressed by students.

While the hot spots were spurred by the pandemic, the college expects to maintain them for the foreseeable future.

Patty Gosselin, a journalism/communications major in her final semester at Northern Essex, welcomes the outdoor Wi-Fi initiative, and looks forward to using the hot spot at the campus library in Haverhill.

After the pandemic struck, Gosselin said she found it challenging doing her course work, and the tasks required for a coop job, in the Newburyport apartment she shares with her mother and at the time her sister, who attends another college.

“Our apartment is very small so it’s not only difficult finding the space, but it’s also hard to get into the mindset of trying to work,” she said, adding that their Wi-Fi service also could be uneven when all three were trying to use it.

“That’s why I think these Wi-Fi parking lots are so great,” she said, observing that for her and many other college students, cars have offered a place of freedom during the pandemic, “a way of getting out of our rooms. Now the availability of Wi-Fi makes that an even better scenario. Working in a car is a little cramped, but it’s a lot better than trying to work from home.”

As a community service, Northern Essex is making the hot spots available to the general public, and with ample space in the lots, is not enforcing rules requiring the public to park in visitor spots.

If students face challenges working virtually, “possibly some of our neighbors are