Groups Calling for Better Rural Broadband Access for Parents, Students

Groups Calling for Better Rural Broadband Access for Parents, Students Click to Enlarge Photo: Jake Judd (KNSI)

(KNSI) - Schools across the state are closed, forcing districts to do what is called distance learning. Districts in rural areas are getting creative with how the students get their instruction, including sending home worksheet packets and allowing students to come to the school parking lot to hook into district wi-fi.

Last week, Governor Tim Walz pulled the plug on $30 million dollars for rural broadband funding and reallocated it to the fight against COVID-19. Nathan Zacharias, with the Minnesota Rural Broadband Coalition, says broadband internet funding should be considered an essential service.

"We're going to see more pressure and more stress with the COVID-19 outbreak. And that's putting pressure and stress on all our institutions, and it's going to show that, really, broadband is no different than some of the other basic services that people need."

The coalition estimates that 17% of Minnesotans lack broadband access. Zacharias says that means students won't have access to lesson plans.

Steve Grove heads the Department of Employment and Economic Development and says while they continue to push lawmakers to provide emergency assistance to businesses and their employees, they hope companies will be mindful of staff members put in tight situations. Some people he says won't be able to check or send important e-mails, in addition to missing out on video conferences.

"We know that employers are already demonstrating extraordinary creativity during this time of crisis, and we ask that they continue to be collaborative and creative and help parents navigate school closures."

That could include providing flexibility to workers who don't have the capability or technology to work from home.

Education Commissioner Mary Catherine Ricker says the state isn't just accommodating for a couple of snow days. They need to think about the long term.

Zacharias says he understands roads aren't built overnight, and a broadband system can't be built overnight, either. Zacharias says projects started through grants being awarded from the recent round of funding won't begin until this spring or summer. He says the new coronavirus sheds light on needing to ensure that all state residents are connected when an emergency arises.

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