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Lack of broadband access adds to challenges for school districts in Greater Minnesota

From adding Wi-Fi hotspots to offering grab-and-go flash drives, rural districts are creating ways to help students get schoolwork done remotely.

Optical fiber cables
Rural districts have long lobbied state lawmakers to help close gaps in broadband availability that disproportionately impact their communities.
REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi

Students in the Blue Earth Area Schools district are staying connected with their school communities this week through a spirit week challenge posted on the district’s Facebook page that’s already been shared 80 times.

For “Music and Movement Monday,” students — often accompanied by their younger siblings and their dogs — posted videos and photos of their dance moves, indoor basketball skills and bicycle stunts. 

During this time at home, as educators prepare for distance learning, it’s a way to keep students and families engaged, says Superintendent Mandy Fletcher. 

When it comes to ensuring equitable access to lessons, however, she and her staff are having to put a lot more thought into how they plan to use online platforms. 

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The district became a one-to-one district several years ago. It currently has enough Chromebooks to pair each student in grades 3-12 with their own device. And  they have enough in stock to distribute them to younger students whose parents indicated they didn’t have access to a device at home. 

In that regard, it’s better positioned to support distance learning online than many of its counterparts in Greater Minnesota. But then there’s the connectivity piece.

As far as internet access goes, that’s definitely a concern, given that we are in a rural area,” Fletcher said.  

Households that lack a reliable internet connection — or any connection, at all — pose an added challenge to distance learning. Rural districts have long lobbied state lawmakers to help close gaps in broadband availability that disproportionately impact their communities. Now, faced with an unprecedented ask — to prepare distance learning plans to allow students to complete their studies from home as the COVID-19 pandemic runs its course, if need be — rural districts are troubleshooting ways to immediately expand internet access to all student households. 

Gov. Tim Walz
MinnPost photo by Greta Kaul
Gov. Tim Walz
This Friday marks the end of a statewide eight-day school closure that Gov. Tim Walz announced as part of an executive order earlier this month, giving school administrators, teachers and staff a student-free chunk of time to work out the details involved in delivering lessons remotely in the event of an extended school closure — a possibility that’s sounding more and more likely.

Asked on a press conference call Monday if the temporary school closure would continue beyond March 27, Walz said it’s “probably inevitable.” 

“The reality is they’re planning for much longer than a week,” Fletcher said of her teachers and staff, who are preparing both lessons for online learning and alternative options that include paper packets. 

Creating new mobile hotspots

Fletcher says her district surveyed families a couple of years ago and found that about 95 percent of its families self-reported some type of internet access, whether through broadband, fiber, or a mobile hotspot. The district also purchased a batch of mobile hotspots to check out to families in need.  

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In recent years, the local internet company BEVCOMM has done a good job of expanding its footprint, she adds. And it has stepped up during the COVID-19 crisis by offering districts a $3,000 donation to support the purchase of additional Wi-Fi hotspots for distribution, and by offering discounted broadband rates to low-income families. 

“We purchased an additional 10 mobile hotspots,” Fletcher said, noting they’ll “be distributed to families that still do not have internet access.”

School districts located across the Iron Range are looking to expand internet access to families currently without through the purchase and distribution of hotspot devices as well, says Steve Giorgi, executive director of the Range Association of Municipalities and Schools. 

In preparation to support online work as they roll out distance learning plans (potentially starting next week), the Hibbing Public Schools district purchased 500 hotspot devices from AT&T, he says.

In other communities, school leaders he’s in communication with say they’re looking at ways to strengthen the bandwidth at sites that are already connected — like banks and grocery stores — to create a hotspot around those facilities.

And the Mountain Iron-Buhl Public Schools district had already outfitted its school buses with WiFi, prior to the pandemic, he says. They might consider parking their buses in various locations “to create hotspots that way.”

Lower-tech backup plans

For students in the Warroad Public Schools district, access to a device doesn’t pose a barrier to online distance learning. Two years ago, the district invested in becoming a one-to-one district. 

But as more and more businesses ask their employees to work remotely, following social distancing guidance from state leaders and public health experts, Superintendent Shawn Yates says he and his team are staying mindful of the fact that “there’s only so much bandwidth” to go around. 

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To that end, we’re trying to adjust a little bit, as far as our [distance learning] plan,” he said. “So we’re not doing a great deal of live streaming of lessons. In other words, there’s not a particular time that a teacher will be online hosting some kind of a chat with direct delivery to our students.”

Considerations like this are twofold, he adds. Not only do his teachers need to be mindful of bandwidth limitations, but they also need to be mindful of the fact that not all students have access to the internet at home — a barrier that raises equity concerns as well. 

To troubleshoot, a number of his educators have been creating lecture videos that can be downloaded to students’ devices and watched at home without the need for an internet connection. 

If districts are directed to roll out their distance learning plans next week, Yates says students can count on a backup plan that entails a mix of paper handouts and content on flash drives — all to be available the same ways meals are, through grab-and-go sites and by drop-off services provided by the district’s bus drivers. 

Paul Neubauer, superintendent of Foley Public Schools, says he and his educators have explored the flipped lesson option — where a teacher records a lesson that’s downloaded to a device for a student to watch later on — as well. But if students still aren’t allowed to come on site, even if it’s just to wipe old lessons off of their device and download new ones, this workaround becomes a bit more cumbersome, he says. 

Technically, Foley isn’t a one-to-one district. But so far the school has been able to equip nearly 200 families with a laptop for students’ use at home. For now, the district is prioritizing students in grades 4-12. If possible, they’ll extend the device distribution to younger students a bit later.

“In the preK-3 building, our distance learning is going to be putting together learning activities that are physical in nature — to deliver to kids and collect from them,” he said.  

For the remainder of this planning period, he and his team are continuing to work with local internet providers to connect the 20 or so families that still don’t have access. They’ve also hammered out a set of standards for distance learning, so everyone is on the same page when it comes to things like: “How much time should a student spend on a computer in a day?”

“We’re developing our district standards — [a process] that normally would take us a couple of months, we’re doing in a couple of days now,” he said. “The pace of everything is accelerated.” 

Explore some onsite work with spacing?

In the Westbrook-Walnut Grove Schools district, Superintendent Loy Woelber says they’re planning for monthly packets to be used to deliver distance learning at the elementary level. 

Older students in one school community are operating at a one-to-one device capacity. For their classmates in the two other school communities served by his consolidated district, he thinks they’ll be able to get at least one device into the homes of each family with school-aged children that’s currently lacking a device to work on at home. 

Even after taking measures to eliminate or reduce the hardware barriers to online learning, he’s concerned about things like weak connections — the sort of thing that’s already made conference calls with staff that needed to stay home this week hard to understand — and students relying on cellphones to complete their school work on. 

He takes the social distancing guidance seriously, he says. But he’s already pressing the state Department of Education to consider some middle-ground options for what that could look like moving forward  — whether that could mean splitting classes into smaller sizes and rotating school attendance days, allowing for on-site appointments so select students can work one-on-one with a paraprofessional or a teacher, or establishing worksite hubs inside large community centers or great rooms to ensure students — who are appropriately spaced apart — have a reliable internet connection and a quiet place to focus on their school work. 

“That’s 20 kids who are able to report there that have a tough home life,” he says, playing out the work hub scenario. “It’s a place to go to find intervention help and work in peace and be monitored. When you’re done, you check out, go home.”