Schools struggle to find hotspots for Minnesota students without internet access

The largest school district in the state faces a big challenge when it comes to distance learning, and that’s getting internet to all 38,000 students. Prior to the COVID19 pandemic about a thousand students did not have online access at home.

“For some of our kids we just feel a real distance from them without access to technology and not being able to talk to them on a regular basis,” says Anoka-Hennepin Schools Chief Technology and Information Officer Joel VerDuin.

VerDuin says the district's 20,000 Chromebook computers have already been handed out to students, along with many paper packets to get distance learning started. But currently, 500 to 1,000 students don’t have access to the internet at home.

Changing that is top priority.  $32,000 raised by the district’s foundation has helped, but not solved everything.

“We are looking at alternatives right now which include turning old cell phones into hotspots," said VerDuin. "That might be something we can access in a shorter period of time."

For now, the district is leaning heavily on informing families of their options. Comcast has its Internet Essentials program which provides a cheaper rate to families. The company has turned on hotspots nationwide for any kids anywhere within reach to use. Plus, Charter Communications is offering free access to Spectrum broadband and Wi-Fi for 60 days to any new K-12 or college student, along with educator's households.

Meanwhile, with the worldwide shortage of mobile hotspots, VerDuin is told wait times could be 40 to 50 days. So, the district is working with T-Mobile to refurbish and create their own.

“We are looking at alternatives right now, which include turning old cell phones into hotspots. That might be something we can access in a shorter period of time” says VerDuin. “I think everyone is missing that face-to-face collaboration that we’ve had with kids."

The district also shared links to Internet Essentials along with a guide to finding affordable internet.