Soroco schools get $2.9M to expand broadband access for students, nearly 1,200 homes in South Routt
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify that the grant funding is specific to properties within the communities of Oak Creek, Phippsburg and Yampa.
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — For ninth-grade student Larhae Whaley, online classes are tough, mainly because she has trouble getting online.
“Our WiFi does not work great, and it’s kind of sketchy. It has its own mood of when it decides it should work,” said Whaley, who attends South Routt High School. “During school last year, if me and my sisters had a meeting on Zoom or something like that, only one of us could be on the internet at a time.”
The pandemic has highlighted the need for access to quality broadband for many purposes, especially for schools. State legislators passed a bill in December to allocate $20 million in grants to expand access for students, and the South Routt School District was able to get a piece of that.
In partnership with Yampa Valley Electric Association and its Luminate Fiber subsidiary, the $2.9 million grant will expand access to nearly 1,200 homes in south Routt County and to each of the district’s campuses in time for the start of next school year.
“When we were shut down back in March, we recognized, several of our families had no connectivity at all,” said Ciara Bartholomew, finance and business manager for the district. “So our learning objectives were very slowed. We still met them, it was just very slowed.”
Bartholomew said in March 2020, she was doing everything she could to figure out how to get students better internet access, reaching out to AT&T, Verizon and others, mainly focused on hot spots. These worked great for some families, but if there were multiple students in the same house, it still was not a strong enough connection.
“Some families have multiple students within a house, and when they don’t have connectivity, that halts their educational journey, and that is just not fair to do,” Bartholomew said.
Bartholomew said she never expected to be lobbying for broadband grants, but she took the issue on because it was so clearly impactful for students.
“I view broadband as a utility, and it is a basic function in this day and age, and that became very crystallized back in March when COVID hit and school districts were shut down,” Bartholomew said.
She said YVEA reached out to her, saying they could use existing infrastructure to expand broadband access. Meagan Moore-Kemp, energy solutions manager with YVEA, said they will be following the above ground electrical infrastructure in place and are already working to get things ready for fiber installation.
Broadband projects can take a while to develop, but this one is unique because of the partnership with the district and because they already have the funding. The pace of these projects is often dictated by the parameters of the grant itself.
The parameters of the grant from the Connecting Colorado Students Grant program wanted improvements to be made quickly, by next fall, to react directly to the pandemic, but also to provide a solution that will last. Part of the ability to move so quickly is because power lines and other infrastructure are already in place is above ground, and they don’t have to dig to get to it.
While the pandemic may have made the need more immediate and obvious, Moore-Kemp said they have been aware of this need for years, going back to when the county created a broadband plan in 2016.
“It is hard to overstate just how important it is, not only for the school district but for the wider community here in South Routt,” said Routt County Commissioner Tim Corrigan, who lives south of Yampa.
Internet is a problem for him, too, requiring him to use a hotspot to have a strong enough connection to join the Routt County Board of Commissioners’ meetings on Zoom. Corrigan said if he had any of his children trying to do schoolwork at the same time, it would be an untenable situation.
Corrigan said the county didn’t have anything to do with the district getting this grant, but he sees their role as trying to make sure everyone is aware of the opportunities out there. While grants like this are progress toward the goal of giving everyone access, there is still a long way to go, he said.
“I think this is a huge leap forward, but it doesn’t get us to the finish line,” Corrigan said.
To reach Dylan Anderson, call 970-871-4247 or email danderson@SteamboatPilot.com.
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