Distance learning on Minnesota’s Iron Range — with no broadband

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Stephanie Kowalski still finds herself at Virginia High School most mornings, even though the building has been shut down for a month.

The junior has limited internet access in her rural Minnesota home. So, in order to join her class online, she drives to the high school, connects to the building’s WiFi on her school-issued device and begins her school day from the front seat of her car.

"The first few times, my teacher is like, ‘Steph, why are you in your car?’" Kowalski said.

For many schools across Minnesota, distance learning under Gov. Tim Walz’s ‘stay at home’ order is done virtually. But a lack of broadband access on the Iron Range has left thousands of students feeling disconnected and forced educators to use old-school methods to make sure kids are getting an education during the coronavirus pandemic.

RELATED: Response to coronavirus exposes lack of high-speed internet across Minnesota

A recent survey, conducted by the Range Association for Municipalities and Schools, found more than 3,500 students across 30 school districts reported having very limited or no internet access at home.

With the governor closing schools statewide for the rest of the school year, the stark contrast between the haves and have-nots will come into focus for the foreseeable future and is reigniting the conversation around the expansion of broadband service to underserved areas.

A New Routine

Inside the Mountain Iron-Buhl High School cafeteria, Principal James Jotter watches as support staff begins their daily ritual of organizing worksheets and books in folders labeled with each student’s name and address.

The staff then staple together brown bags that hold prepackaged meals for students who qualify for free and reduce lunches. The meals and the packets are then loaded onto school buses.

When the school bell rings at 3:10 p.m., drivers board their empty school buses and drive their normal routes, delivering the curriculum to families waiting at the stops.

"The first day that we did this, I’ve never seen them so excited to see me to be honest," said bus driver Casey Hultgren. "They started chanting my name."

He makes a dozen stops along his new normal route, including right to the driveway of several rural homes in the area, where curriculum packets are left in mailboxes.

"When we drop it off, we pick up any work they have completed and bring it to the teachers," Jotter said.

Students are encouraged to send work back virtually, but Jotter acknowledged that the lack of broadband availability makes that impossible for some, and he worries about the lasting impacts of the inequity.

"We’re trying to prepare our students for the jobs of tomorrow," he said. "In order to provide skilled workers in those areas, we need access to broadband at a much higher speed than we’re getting up here."

That prospect has state and congressional leaders calling for additional financial resources to support the expansion of broadband access.

Access Requires Expansion, Additional Funding

In March, Senator Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., introduced legislation that would help small broadband providers continue offering free or discounted broadband services to families and students in rural areas during the coronavirus pandemic.

"A lot of this is going to be making sure we’re pushing this out to areas that are really going to use the money and then partnering with different entities to get broadband out to everyone," Klobuchar said in an interview with 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS.

The bipartisan bill allocates $2 billion in reimbursement for those companies.

Klobuchar, who has championed the expansion of broadband access during her time in office, said the impacts to education during the pandemic could be the push that companies need to invest in areas like the Iron Range.

"This has been a problem that is a long-standing issue and I think we now have this opportunity to get it done immediately, and we should seize on it," Klobuchar said.

The legislation has been referred to the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation.

Back in Virginia, Kowalski finishes up a virtual math lesson. Subjects, like math, are easier when you can video conference with a teacher, she said. But having to go the extra miles to connect is frustrating and isn’t sustainable long-term.

"Although it’s working, it’s not working super great all-around for everyone," she said.