MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — We’ll learn later this week what school will look like for Minnesota students this fall. No matter what’s announced on Thursday, districts are again preparing for internet service to again be an important piece. Connection problems plagued some areas in Greater Minnesota this past spring.

Ely is often considered the starting point for a tranquil trip to the Boundary Waters, not a place to stay plugged in. It’s why internet access in the age of COVID-19 school restrictions has been a big challenge.

Ely Superintendent Erik Erie says nearly 30% of families in the area have reported connection problems.

“It has been a big problem,” Erie said.

Last spring, that meant sending mobile hot spots home, creating them in parking lots, and going old school. Literally, with pencil and paper.

“For me, it’s an equity issue. Our kids didn’t have equal access to distance learning,” Erie said.

On Facebook, families vented with similar frustrations from western and central parts of the state. In Morrison County, 15-year-old Caleb told WCCO he didn’t have the speed or bandwidth to make Google classroom or YouTube work.

The Minnesota Rural Broadband Coalition remains committed to connecting everyone in the state to broadband. Nathan Zacharias is Government Relations Liaison. He says right now, nearly 20% of greater Minnesota is considered off the grid.

“You can’t build a road overnight and you can’t build a broadband network that serves every Minnesotan overnight, either,” Zacharias said.

“We have a plan as a state to close that gap. It just requires funding,” he added.

They hope another special session in August could give it the green light.

Ely’s superintendent says most people want in-building classes to resume this fall there. With smaller class sizes, they believe social distancing in school is possible. The School Board is also expected to approve the purchase of 540 Chromebooks Monday night so students and staff will all have their own device come fall.

Liz Collin

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