As schools and businesses continue to shut down across the state, we are being asked to work, learn, or receive care from home. But the reality is that thousands of Minnesotans still don’t have access to reliable, high-speed broadband internet.

Giving our children a quality education has always been a priority in Minnesota. Now that our children have been asked to stay home from school, we’re seeing a digital divide between those who have broadband those who do not.

Some Minnesota schools are more able to close and employ e-learning solutions than others. It is simply not a viable option for every district in the state. Even though students have connectivity at school, some do not have connectivity in their homes or adequate bandwidth to receive and send online curriculum assignments or projects. Students without access to quality broadband are at a distinct disadvantage from students who have access.

RAMS as an organization that advocates on regional issues of importance has been working with school superintendents and staff at the Northeast Service Coop to try and find temporary solutions that will enable districts and their teachers to deliver educational curriculum during an extended shut down of our schools. Many schools have developed one on one device learning with their students, but those devices without broadband connectivity will be of little value for on-line or e-learning curriculum. Districts are now considering deployment of “Wi-Fi booster pucks” that can be plugged in at home and will enhance Wi-Fi signals from cell phones or other internet connections. The enhanced signal should be enough to allow communications between teachers and students, sharing of curriculum, assignments and exchange of information. The Hibbing school district is leading the way on this initiative with the purchase of 500 pucks! It may be a week or two before they can be distributed but they will provide more learning opportunities once available.

The Northeast Service Coop which provides fiber to our schools and public offices across the region, is also willing to boost bandwidth and speeds in rural locations to create Wi-Fi hotspots outside of those buildings (think township halls, libraries, schools, the grocery store in Orr) that would enable rural students to access Wi-Fi without having to travel into town or back to the school parking lot. These are truly trying times for all of us and not having the ability to readily stay home and work, or learn, or seek telemedicine rather than a scary clinic visit, is not an option for many of us. Please know that there are people and organizations that are working every day to find solutions during these times of uncertainty and change.

RAMS will continue to lobby for additional funding for state broadband grant funding, as will the MN Rural Broadband Coalition and the great members of our Iron Range delegation. Together, ONE RANGE – ONE VOICE – stay strong, stay healthy, someday we will also “stay connected”.

Steve Giorgi is the executive director/ Range Association of Municipalities & Schools (RAMS).

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