EL PASO COUNTY, Colorado — When the State of Colorado schools closed in March, the staff in the Calhan RJ-1 School District got creative with how to implement an online learning plan. The district had already purchased iPads for each student to use in school that year. Their biggest challenge was making sure the kids could connect to the internet at home.
"We thought, what might work would be to take, to acquire some hotspots, put them on our busses, and take them out to the bus stops so that people could access it from their bus stop," said Superintendent David Slothower.
The signal strength was good at most of the bus stops, but Slothower said a few locations didn't work as well. While the district has returned to in-person learning this fall, he thinks the experience will help the district in the future.
"There are going to be applications, illness what have you, where the things we've learned are going to be implemented into the future."
On Wednesday, Governor Jared Polis, State Attorney General Phil Weiser, and Colorado Education Commissioner Katy Anthes announced a multi-layered plan to expand internet access for school children around the state.
"The question before us is, how we can make that every child has access to high-quality broadband," Polis said.
The answer to that question came from cellular carrier T-Mobile. Weiser negotiated a deal whereby the company would donate 34,000 wireless internet hotspots, with up to 100 gigabytes of data per year, to students and families who can't afford internet. The company will also offer internet-ready devices at a lower cost to those consumers.
Colorado was one of 39 states that sued T-Mobile over its merger with Sprint. In exchange for the hotspots, Colorado will officially recognize that the merger is in the best interest of the state.
"We are absolutely in a game of catch-up here, but we now also have a catalyst at this moment to address an issue that is of real urgency to our students," Weiser said.
Commissioner Anthes said that the Colorado Department of Education will give $2 million that it received in federal stimulus money to school districts to help with broadband access as well.
"Broadband access is now an essential school supply," Anthes said.
While the two donations are expected to help expand broadband access, there are still obstacles for families who live in rural areas. Larry McDowell, Director of Technology for the Pikes Peak Board of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES) said there are few high-speed internet options in smaller counties because of the high cost of installing the fiber optic and cable lines.
"It's not worth the investment to some of these private companies to bring broadband out to a small number of houses that are sometimes upwards of 20-30 miles apart," McDowell said.
While cellular service is more readily available on the Eastern Plains, many mountain communities have large areas that lack coverage.
McDowell said many districts in the BOCES opted to print paper packets with lessons that were distributed each week.
"There are some districts where a great number of people do not have access broadband or it's just their phone and they're not able to share that with multiple people in the family," he explained.