April 30, 2020

Minnesota, We Have a Problem: Students Need Internet Access for Distance Learning

By Michelle Koffa

Minnesota students have been distance learning for about a month and are set to continue through at least the remainder of the school year. However, many students—mostly from low-income and rural communities—still do not have access to reliable internet so they can fully engage in distance learning. 

In a recent survey, we found that two of the top concerns about education during COVID-19 were access to reliable internet and devices. We’ve heard stories ranging from students having to access the internet outside of fast-food restaurants due to spotty internet connections at home, to families facing barriers to “free” offers from private internet providers, to students with no access at all. For too many students lessons are cut short or don’t begin at all.

What Are Minnesota Schools Doing To Increase Internet and Device Access? 

In a recent analysis of distance learning plans of 61 Minnesota districts and 30 charter schools, EdAllies found that only 11 plans indicated they will help families secure a hotspot, while 37 provided a list of free or affordable internet options for families.  

A few districts have faced significant challenges helping families access the internet. For example, Duluth Public School District noted, “The district explored the option of providing hotspots to families, but due to the high demand nationwide, was unable to obtain any.” Other districts, like Willmar and Inver Grove Heights, have made internet available outside of their district buildings so students can access the internet in the school parking lots. 

With regard to device access, 39 districts indicated they would ensure all students receive a device—like an iPad or Chromebook—and 14 will provide a device for some grade levels. Many plans, however, did not address internet or device access at all. 

In the absence of internet and devices, a little over half of the plans indicated that paper packets would be available so students could still engage in distance learning. This solution is a temporary fix to an ongoing equity issue of access and engagement. Unless all students have internet access to engage in distance learning, our state’s education gaps will continue to grow. 

Action at the Legislature 

The legislature has drafted, discussed, and moved to approve two proposals that would help close the digital divide:

  • A broad COVID-19 response bill moving through the House (HF4415) would expand the regional library telecommunications aid program, allowing it to be used to improve internet access and access to technology. This would give schools more flexibility to use existing funds for devices and other distance learning supports.
  • Both the House and the Senate are advancing proposals (HF3029/SF4494) to invest $8M in a new Distance Learning Broadband Access Grant Program. This proposal would allow districts to apply for funds to cover the cost of providing internet access to families in need during the 2019-2020 school year.

Every day that goes by, the gaps grow between students who have meaningful access to distance learning and those who don’t. It’s up to the legislature to act now and respond to the immediate needs of Minnesota students. 

What’s Next?

With distance learning set to continue through at least the rest of the school year, it’s important now more than ever for Minnesota students to have access to reliable internet and devices. With the aforementioned bills set to move to the floor, your legislators need to hear from you today about how important it is for the legislature to fund internet and device access so students can equitably and meaningfully engage in distance learning.