BEMIDJI -- In a conference call on Wednesday, April 22, U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., spoke with area school administrators and Paul Bunyan Communications about the roll out of distance learning, technology concerns and rural broadband development.
Bemidji Area Schools Superintendent Tim Lutz, Superintendent, Deer River Schools Matt Grose, Red Lake Public School District Technology Coordinator Ken Perreault and CEO of Paul Bunyan Communications Gary Johnson were all in on the call.
Klobuchar said she hoped to gain stories and local perspectives to bring back with her to Washington to help gain support for a bill to help small broadband providers continue offering critical internet services and upgrades to students and low-income families in rural areas to ensure they remain connected to their school, work and communities during the coronavirus pandemic.
She greeted the group with humor -- noting that conference calls with senators have been riddled with their own technological issues.
Superintendent Lutz said it has been heartwarming to see the community come together to make distance learning possible in such a short time, and that he is very pleased with the roll out overall.
Lutz is hopeful that the situation will help propel schools forward into the future of education and help to drive home the need for reliable internet access for all.
“If we don’t continue to move forward after all that is said and done with this pandemic situation we will have failed ourselves, we will have failed our schools, and we will have failed our families,” Lutz said.
“It’s been a heartwarming exercise to see how they’ve taken on this task,” Johnson said of the school administrators’ tackling of e-learning.
Klobuchar commiserated with local educators, reminding the group that her mother was a teacher, and noting that distance learning was not exactly what teachers had signed up for.
Superintendent Grose agreed with Lutz’s assessment of the success of distance learning and said he was not worried about the teaching aspect, rather that his biggest concern is how children are doing emotionally.
He also expressed to Klobuchar the need for more mental health support funding next year.
The percentage of families with internet access in Red Lake has gone up significantly according to Perreault. The last time data was collected, about six years ago, approximately 40% of Red Lake households were connected to the internet. Now, with information from a recent informal survey, he said the area is about 85% connected.
Some of this increase is directly related to the switch to distance learning, he said.
Perreault said the COVID-19 situation has been a blessing in disguise from a school technology standpoint, because teachers who were afraid to branch out to new technologies before are now being forced to do so.
While it’s still a challenge getting everyone connected, districts and internet service providers are moving quickly and worked hard to get devices issued to students that need them.
One issue left to solve is connecting with the students who are not responsive. There is a percentage that have not been reachable via phone and have not been attending online lessons, administrators said.
Due to this, Grose expressed concern that some students will be behind and need to work hard to catch up academically next year.
He asked Klobuchar about waiving some academic standards requirements for the 2021 school year.
Rural broadband initiative
Klobuchar, who has long been a champion for expanding internet access, said the COVID-19 situation has only made it more clear that something needs to be done.
“We know in rural areas of our state, about 16% of households lack access to broadband,” Klobuchar said. “Now more than ever, it’s critical that every family in Minnesota has access to high-speed internet —regardless of their zip code.”
Johnson echoed this sentiment.
He also discussed how the COVID-19 distance learning situation could be mirrored to help support Sanford Health in a telehealth initiative.
Klobuchar is currently working on a bill called the Keeping Critical Connections Act, which would appropriate $2 billion for a temporary fund at the FCC to help small broadband providers continue offering critical internet services and upgrades to students and low-income families in rural areas to ensure they remain connected to their school, work and communities during the coronavirus pandemic.