Colorado spending $2M to provide internet access to students

DENVER (AP) — Colorado will spend $2 million in federal pandemic relief funding to provide internet access to students who lack service as part of an overall effort to close the digital divide in both rural and urban parts of the state as the pandemic has forced many to rely on online learning.

State education commissioner Kathy Anthes announced the plan on Wednesday, joined by Gov. Jared Polis and Attorney General Phil Weiser. School districts will be able to apply for grants to pay for Wi-Fi hotspots to provide internet access to households as well as things like mobile hotspot trucks that may work better in rural areas, she said.

“Broadband access is now an essential school supply. It’s a non negotiable,” she said at the Fort Logan Northgate School in the Sheridan School District 2 in Denver.

Weiser also announced that T-Mobile would provide up to 34,000 low-income student households with a free hotspot and 100GB of free data for a year as well as discounted devices like tablets and computers. It’s part of a national effort the wireless company announced in November and the commitment to help those households fulfills part of a settlement agreement Weiser’s office reached with it last fall regarding its $26.5 billion purchase of Sprint.

Weiser also announced he has filed a petition with the Federal Communications Commission on Wednesday asking that it use funding for improving school internet access to pay for extending schools’ broadband networks to students’ homes and for hotspots or other online access for students.

More than 65,000 students lack internet access, according to the Colorado Department of Education and the Colorado Education Initiative.

While most schools are holding in-person classes, some families may not send their children to school because they have health conditions or fear exposing an elderly relative to the coronavirus, Polis said. Other students may have to partially rely on online learning when their schools are temporarily closed because of outbreaks, he said.

The reopening of schools, universities and colleges combined with people possibly getting lax about social distancing during the upcoming Labor Day weekend could cause a bump in coronavirus cases in September, state health officials said Wednesday.

What the impact of school reopening will be will not be known until weeks into the school year. But officials anticipate some reduction in a statewide social distancing rate that in recent weeks has contributed to a leveling of new infections, Dr. Jonathan Samet, dean of the Colorado School of Public Health, and state epidemiologist Dr. Rachel Herlihy said.

Herlihy said the state has experienced two pronounced peaks in new cases — in April, as the pandemic gripped the state, and in July after the Independence Day holiday.

State data suggests that holiday saw about 40% of people practicing social distancing, while an estimated 75% are doing so now, she said.