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MCKENZIE LANGE/The Daily Sentinel

Paul Jebe, site leadership director for School District 51, readies a Chromebook to be checked out for remote learning at Orchard Mesa Middle School in April. With more students doing school remotely, District 51 is doing all it can to provide broadband access to all students.

The COVID-19 pandemic forced District 51 officials to get creative in 2020 while also highlighting the value of cleaning supplies, plans and a sound technology and broadband strategy.

Dan Burke, the school district’s executive director of technology services, has led the district’s adaptation to remote and hybrid learning. The most notable change was the creation of an online class system, but this change shined a spotlight on another issue facing the district’s students: lack of access to the internet.

Through T-Mobile’s Project 10Million, the district was granted about 2,500 internet hotspot devices, mostly small Wi-Fi routers. Those hotspots are part of the district’s larger effort to assure that all of its students have access to the web.

“Our infrastructure, as far as cellular stuff, is really lacking compared to somewhere like the Denver area or the Salt Lake City area,” Burke said. “I really hope, at some point, we come up to par with that ability to be able to pull fast internet from coverage anywhere in Grand Junction. Most places are pretty spotty. The biggest problem we have right now is just location. Some people who live in Glade Park don’t have access to internet. Some of them don’t even have access to cellular data. Some of these places are just getting more developed out here.”

Burke believes that, despite spotty areas of broadband in the Grand Valley, the district’s efforts have been effective. Additionally, they’ve improved their professional development, helping parents get a better grip on how to use the technology and the district’s interface.

The district’s website features a parental academy of sorts, in both English and Spanish, and the district is continuing its efforts to clear up any potential confusion. Technology-related questions can be sent to helpdesk@d51schools.org.

Burke identified numerous other ways the district is pursuing its goal of every student having reliable broadband.

“We’re trying to make some outdoor places with wireless access for kids in the warmer times,” Burke said. “We’re partnering with some businesses and offering free Wi-Fi. The main thing is identifying kids who don’t have internet and getting it to them. I think cellular will probably be what we do offer.”

Perhaps the greatest challenge the district faces is increasing internet access for its Hispanic/Latino students. According to a report by the Colorado Futures Center, in most areas of the state, including the Grand Valley, Hispanic/Latino children are disproportionately affected by lack of broadband access.

Per the report, in the Grand Valley, as well as some areas in the Denver and Colorado Springs metropolitan areas, at least 76% of Hispanic/Latino students don’t have reliable internet at their households.

The valley does have a higher percentage of students with internet access than most of the state, showing the district’s success in its efforts, but its Hispanic/Latino students carry most of the burden when it comes to still needing access.

“Personally, I don’t have issues with my broadband access, but I do know that our Latino community does because most of them are from the lower socioeconomic levels,” said Gisela Flanigan, a member of the Grand Valley Latino Chamber of Commerce.

Perhaps the best solution for the district will come down the road from a much broader and more ambitious project: Elon Musk’s Starlink plan with SpaceX.

Burke sees the plan, in which many small satellites can deploy around the world and provide reliable internet anywhere, as not only the ultimate solution to the Grand Valley’s broadband woes, but as the solution to internet woes in general. SpaceX has been conducting tests with the technology in the past month.

“You’re going to a shift because it’s really affordable internet offered by Starlink,” Burke said. “It’s something you should keep your eye on. It will be like the cellular data plan, but it’s going to have a lot higher output for the bandwidth, and it should be a lot cheaper to offer people. It could really be a game-changer.”

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