Technology hinders school rollout

Distance learning underway, but access, internet are obstacles

by Tom Coombe
The first week of distance learning in Ely provided confirmation to what local officials have been contending for years: the digital divide is real.
Access to technology, and slow, intermittent and non-existent internet service have been among the obstacles faced by both Ely students and teachers as the school district began a distance learning initiatives that will extend at least until the end of April.
Superintendent Erik Erie said this week’s launch has “laid bare how difficult broadband service is around Ely.”
“We were a little surprised at first as most people appeared to have internet service and devices,” Erie said Thursday. “As we got into this, we’re getting more requests not only from students but faculty... Initially, we didn’t think we would need as many technology devices and help with the internet. That’s grown significantly.”
The district has distributed at least 80 devices to students thus far, doubling initial projections.
Students have also been able to receive “pucks,” mobile devices that provide internet service.
Yet technology continues to be a prime challenge for students and faculty, with some parts of the Ely area hampered by poor or slow internet service.
Even areas with traditionally better internet service have been affected, with Midco’s service going down three times this week, including a brief period Wednesday morning, mid-day Thursday and about 12 hours Sunday.
“We had a service provider go out on Wednesday morning with a lot of people going online trying to do distance learning,” said Erie.
Students in Ely and across the state are making the transition to distance learning because of the coronoavirus pandemic. Gov. Tim Walz announced last week that all schools will remain closed at least until May 4.
Teachers in Ely used an extended spring break to prepare for the transition, converting on a fast-track to deliver education in unprecedented fashion.
Elementary students have received packets from their teachers while those in the middle and high schools are using the internet, connecting with teachers via email, Google Classroom and other means.
“We’re trying to stay connected every day,” said Erie.
School activities have been delayed while events such as the high school prom and senior trip to Washington, D.C., have been postponed.
While classes are now set to resume in-person in early-May, the situation remains very fluid and subject to change.
“We’re preparing both ways,” said Erie. “While we would love to everybody back on May 5, that would be the best-case scenario. We also have to make some contingency plans.”
School board session
Amid the coronavirus pandemic, school board members will meet in a virtual setting on Monday, starting at 6 p.m.
The meeting will be conducted via conference call, and members of the public will be able to call in and listen to the meeting.
It will be the first board session since the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board approved a $7 million allocation for a proposed school renovation project. The funding hinges on voter approval of a $10 million referendum.
That referendum remains slated for August, although Erie said “we understand it’s a difficult time to be pursuing this, but this could also be an economic shot in the arm for the community so we are going to try and make it as palatable as possible and still doing what we need to for kids.”
Erie said he has heard from supporters of the proposal who hope to meet soon and begin a campaign to generate voter approval.