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Iron Range schools addressing internet connection issues for possibility of distance learning

Updated: August 03, 2020 06:39 PM

Broadband internet access has always been a challenge in rural communities in the state. On the range, this was a even bigger challenge for students who had to do distance learning. School districts and local broadband organizations are working on addressing the issue.

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"We had about 200 students and families that identified as needing help with internet if they were going to do distance learning," said Richard Aldrich, the superintendent for Hibbing Public Schools.

Students from the Hibbing and Rock Ridge school districts were given Ipads and hotspots to have reliable service to do distance learning in the spring. The superintendents from both districts said they plan on offering this again for the upcoming school year.

"We have gotten hold of 150 hotspots that are ready to distribute and we will have those available for students who have difficulty connecting to the internet," said Noel Schmidt, the superintendent for Rock Ridge Public Schools.

Steve Giorgi, the executive director of the Range Association of Municipalities and Schools (RAMS) said over the spring they worked with school districts to survey students on their internet connection and said results were alarming.

"I think a lot of districts were unaware because when talking to the students, students report that they're connected when they actually only have a cell phone," said Giorgi. "Truly to accomplish distance learning you need a broadband internet connection."

Giorgi also said they are in talks with schools now to offer temporary solutions for students by using wireless connections for a better service. For a long term solution, they had a meeting with a consultant Monday to look at different locations on the range for broadband expansion.

"We looked at 13 different locations on the Iron Range that are potential targets for broadband expansion. They're underserved so they qualify for both state border to border grants and federal grants," said Giorgi.

Giorgi said a pilot program for speed testing is ongoing in St Louis, Koochiching, and Itasca Counties. RAMS has been leading the way to create a different set of broadband maps based on approximately 7,000 broadband speed tests submitted by area residents and businesses. Click here to participate.

"That information is critically valuable when it comes to federal funding opportunities. Unfortunately the FCC maps are inaccurate. They often times report rural areas of the state as being served," said Giorgi.

School districts on the range are hoping these efforts will help in offering better internet access.

"There's some spots where even a hotspot doesn't work because they don't have connectivity to a cell tower so a lot of those families are still a paper pencil type situation depending on where they're located or they may come in somewhere in town to try to use wifi, " said Aldrich.

Hibbing Public Schools are hoping to have school in-person for the upcoming school year.

"Our hope is that we are 100 percent in person and looking at our numbers today in St. Louis County, we can be in person with safety protocols in place so that's really our hope and our focus going forward," said Aldrich.

Rock Ridge also hopes they can go back to doing school in person but said they would be ready if they had to go back to distance learning.

"At some point we will go to some variant of distance learning I think especially for the high school so we're prepared for that to happen," said Schmidt.

Families in the area are also doing their part to address the issue. Amna Hanson of Esko said she is about 10 houses away from being able to have broad band internet and can't get the cable company out in her area.

"I have been in contact with the state agencies to see if I can get their assistance. Also I am waiting to see if the franchise agreement for our area requires them to service us. I am also in the process of starting a petition," said Hanson.

Shantyll Carlson of Duluth said she had to pay a lot to offer quality internet access to her children who are in second and sixth grade.

"We just had to upgrade and pay four times more than what we were paying so that both my kids could do schoolwork at the same time without lag," said Carlson.

Tessa Lasky who lives about 15 minutes outside of Cloquet said they currently have to use hotspot on their cell phones through AT&T.

"We have the highest hotspot package on our cell phones, which is still limited when talking about doing online schooling five days per week," said Lasky.

Copyright 2020 WDIO-TV LLC, a Hubbard Broadcasting Company. All rights reserved

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