With the pandemic forcing more and more schools to move to hybrid or remote learning the need for Internet access has never been greater.

As students head to class at the kitchen table, the needs are expecially great for low-income and rural students.

Legislation in the upcoming special session is expected to address K-12 education with a $20 million package tied to an existing program within the Colorado Department of Education that launched just two months ago.

In September, Gov. Jared Polis and Attorney General Phil Weiser announced a settlement with T-Mobile that will provide Internet access and 100 gigs of data to 34,000 low-income student households. The project is known as Project 10Million and is under the Department of Education's ESSER Connecting Colorado Students Grant program. Qualifying households — those with income levels that qualify for free and reduced lunch — will have access to Internet-ready devices, such as tablets or computers, at a significant discount. 

Applications for the Connecting Colorado Students program closed on Nov. 6. Seventeen out of the 27 applications came from rural school districts and students. The grant could be worth up to $15,000 for individual student and teacher connectivity and up to $150,000 for projects to expand or create access for a geographical area to help support the development of broadband infrastructure to connect students and teachers.

The lack of internet access affects about 65,000 students in Colorado, Polis said, and that's most acute for Latino students, with two-thirds lacking access. Without Internet and computer access at home, students can't participate in remote learning and are more likely to disengage and fall behind academically.

Polis touted mobile hotspots for K-12 students as part of the special session legislation. In an urban area, up to 40 households can work off one mobile hot spot, but that has limited usefulness in rural Colorado.

Jarred Masterson is the tech director for the East Central Board of Cooperative Educational Services, which provides cooperative services to school districts in Colorado's central Eastern Plains counties. He's also managing the contract for the Colorado Education Broadband Coalition, which works to provide internet service to rural schools. 

He says the problem for most rural school districts is that they have the coverage but not the bandwidth. It's either more expensive than they can afford or they can't get it at all. Five years into the project, his organization has helped bring down those costs, to allow schools to purchase what they need, not what their budgets can afford. 

But mobile hot spots are not a great solution for rural students, he said.

"It's better than nothing but not much better than anything else," Masterson said.

He likens internet connectively through a mobile hot spot to buying groceries at a convenience store; it's typically not high quality and more expensive than it should be.

Bandwidth is a huge problem; mobile hot spots generally can't support the simultaneous activities in some households, such as having more than one child who needs to use the internet for school instruction. "That experience will not be good for anyone."

Masterson said the the pandemic has validated what education officials have worried about for years in regard to internet access: anywhere, anytime learning and digital technologies that students need for learning at the pace and time where it fits into their lives.

"We're seeing that put to the test," he said.

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