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State efforts to close internet gap hampering distance learning aren’t being expedited — at least for now

“This is as important as school buses, as textbooks, as teachers,” said Fred Nolan, executive director of the Minnesota Rural Education Association. “This has become an essential part of providing education, daily, for students throughout the state.”

Kathy Moore placed the hotspot provided by the school near a window by the highest point in their house in Lake Shore to try to increase speed and coverage.
Courtesy of Kathy Moore

From the outset of distance learning, Kathy Moore knew that there’d be nothing equitable about how her three children finished out their school year. They live in Lake Shore, a northern Minnesota community served by the Brainerd Public Schools district.

Her kids excel, academically. But they have slow, spotty internet service at their home — which also serves as an office for Moore and her husband. That means it took her kids close to 30 minutes to download a five-minute video. Those wanting to partake, fully, in a live class meeting online had to ask everyone else in the household to get offline. And the two eldest had to drive to a home with a faster internet connection to take seven Advanced Placement online exams — all while being mindful of social distancing and sanitizing practices. 

Looking ahead, it’s likely that distance learning — at least in some capacity — may return next fall. But this way of doing school is wearing on everyone’s patience, and energy for staying engaged, Moore says. 

They use cellphone hotspots at their house — operating on just two to three bars of service. After the transition to distance learning, their school district outfitted them with an additional hotspot, which they returned when classes wrapped up two weeks ago. 

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Ideally, for a faster, more reliable connection, they’d connect their home to the local provider’s nearest cable hub box, located just a quarter mile down their driveway. But it’s never going to happen, Moore says, because the expense of building out that connection isn’t an economical one for the provider. 

She’d like to apply for state grant dollars allocated to these very projects in rural communities. But on state maps, her household gets marked as covered by a local provider — a glitch in the system that makes her and many in her community ineligible. 

“Until that gets fixed, lots of communities like ours are going to be passed over. We’ll still have kids going to school, people working from home,” she said. “We’re waiting for the system to catch up with reality.”

Mary, grade 11, learning to code while distance learning.
Courtesy of Kathy Moore
Mary, grade 11, learning to code while distance learning.
Given the heightened focus on expanding broadband infrastructure in rural communities across Minnesota — especially now that it’s proven so essential to distance learning — Moore sees an opportunity to improve and accelerate state efforts to get everyone connected to the internet. 

However, while bills for additional broadband and distance learning tech funding made it all the way to the end of session, ultimately nothing passed. 

Now she, along with so many other Minnesotans who are being impacted by the digital divide, will have to wait to see if state lawmakers end up taking action during a special session, slated to begin June 12.

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Dashed legislative efforts

Sen. Rob Ecklund, DFL-International Falls, authored a bill (HF3029) that would have expedited the state’s investment in closing the digital divide in the midst of distance learning. 

State Sen. Rob Ecklund
State Sen. Rob Ecklund
He’d proposed allocating an additional $10 million, from the state’s general fund, to the state-run border-to-border broadband fund. During the 2019 state legislative session, lawmakers allocated $40 million in one-time funds to this grant program. In January, Gov. Tim Walz announced the latest round of project recipients, awarding $20 million to 30 providers that will complete middle- and last-mile projects to extend broadband to households, businesses and community institutions. These projects will bring the total number of homes and businesses connected to broadband through the grant program since its inception in 2014 to a total of 49,900, the state reports. 

The demand, however, far outpaces the state’s current investment. During this last round, the state Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED), which administers these grants, received requests for $70 million in funding from 80 different applications. 

State Sen. Torrey Westrom
State Sen. Torrey Westrom
Ecklund’s bill also included an $8 million allocation, also from the state’s general fund, to the state Department of Education. Those funds could be used to reimburse districts for expenditures they’d already taken to connect students to broadband during distance learning — things like establishing free hotspots and outfitting students with devices. (The bill also included $2 million to reimburse telemedicine providers.)

Sen. Torrey Westrom, R-Elbow Lake, authored a companion bill, which passed in the Senate. But Ecklund’s bill got tied up over concerns that the broadband expansion piece would not be covered by coronavirus-related federal funds, he says. So he’s been keeping an eye on how other states are using those federal funds. At least two other states, that he knows of, have used those dollars for broadband projects. 

“We’ll see if there’s a challenge to that, or what’s going on. I passed that on to leadership, so they’re at least aware of it,” he said. “I’ve been in communication with Sen. Westrom. I’d at least like to get that education and telehealth piece passed in a special session — because those do appear to qualify for CARES Act funding.”

Discrepancies in tracking the need

As shown in the provider broadband service inventory map that DEED publishes, using data collected from providers across the state, many Minnesotans live in areas that are underserved or unserved — meaning they have inadequate downloading and uploading speeds or no access at all. In addition, there are households that show up as being covered in this map that are actually stuck in a situation like that of the Moore family.

Getting a clear count on just how many Minnesota students are lacking adequate broadband access, however, has proven to be a challenge.

Border-to-Border Broadband Development Grant Program: Unserved, Underserved and Served Broadband Areas
Minnesota Department of Economic Development
Border-to-Border Broadband Development Grant Program: Unserved, Underserved and Served Broadband Areas
In early May, the state Department of Education asked all public school districts and charter schools to self-report the number of individual students without internet access or access to a device for distance learning. The data set isn’t complete, but based on the counts provided by 540 districts and charter schools — including the state’s three largest districts — 20,899 students were still lacking access to a device in early May, and 21,523 were still lacking internet access. 

According to the Minnesota Rural Education Association (MREA), those counts seem a bit low. Their analysis shows that nearly 31,000 rural public students live in households that do not have adequate broadband access (defined as a connection with at least 25 Mbps download speed and at least 3 Mbps upload speed), accounting for 85 percent of the statewide total. The association arrived at these estimates by combining the Minnesota State Office of Broadband Development coverage maps with the American Community Survey data on households with persons under age 18 in each school district, along with state Department of Education data on 2018-19 student enrollment. 

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The association is asking member districts to verify these estimates, and to submit an updated count of households with enrolled students who do not have access, as well as the number who have access but cannot afford to pay for that access. DEED maps map out accessibility, but not affordability.

For instance, in the Bemidji area, Telecom has been very active in laying out broadband fibers — making internet nearly 100 percent accessible there, says Fred Nolan, executive director of MREA. “But that doesn’t help address affordability issues — especially with the American Indian population and high degree of poverty in that area,” he explained. “You need both parts of the proposition.”

Calls for additional investments

Looking ahead, the state Department of Education has asked districts to create contingency plans for a hybrid model that combines distance learning with on-site learning for the start of the 2020-21 school year next fall.

To help smooth out this transition, Gov. Tim Walz listed “technology for K-12 students to assist their learning” as a top priority for the $43 million in the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief funds, received through the federal CARES Act.

But Nolan worries that too many rural students will remain disconnected from online learning opportunities next fall; and that as the digital divide does close, those last in line may end up being left behind altogether. 

“We need to have all children educated, wherever they are, rather than looking at it as ‘Well, that’s a small subset,’” he said. “This is as important as school buses, as textbooks, as teachers. This has become an essential part of providing education, daily, for students throughout the state.”

Public school enrolled students with no broadband internet availability
Public school enrolled students with no broadband internet availability
The scope of the need, when it comes to closing the digital divide, has also been blurred by the goodwill of providers that stepped up by offering free services and hotspots to districts and families across the state, to finish out the school year from home. 

That includes ARVIG, an internet provider that serves a number of rural communities across the state. The company signed onto the Keep Americans Connected Pledge, promising not to disconnect anyone who couldn’t pay during the pandemic. They also established a free Wi-Fi hotspot at their office in Parkers Prairie, offering students an access point they could use to get their school work done. 

All of those free services came with a deadline, though: through the end of the school year. That means students are on their own for summer school. And the company isn’t sure what it’ll be able to offer, for free, next fall, says Lisa Greene, a company spokesperson. 

“It’s not a sustainable model, for the long-term,” she said. “We’ll have to figure out something else.”