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The Blaine County School District began rolling out its online learning program this week, letting students and teachers work remotely to meet social distancing requirements. But for families without internet at home, the new system comes with new challenges.

The district is still figuring out exactly how many students will need help getting online, spokeswoman Heather Crocker said, but has so far identified at least 51 families that don’t have internet in their homes. As many as one quarter of students in the district may not have high-speed internet access at home, board of trustees Chairman Keith Roark noted in a statement last week.

About half the 51 families identified live in Ketchum, Hailey or Sun Valley, Crocker said, while the other half live in more rural areas in and around Bellevue, Carey and Gannett. For some families, the challenge is a financial one. Others lack access because of the location of their home.

The challenge that’s now before the School District is determining exactly how many students are unable to access their schoolwork online—and how best to bring the internet to them.

“It’s really like a puzzle that a lot of different staff members are putting together, to wrap support around each of these students,” Crocker said.

The “digital divide” between students who have the internet at home and those who don’t is not a new problem, nor is it a problem unique to Blaine County.

“We’ve always known that there’s a digital divide with internet access in our community, and it’s something we’ve been trying to work on for a long time,” Crocker said.

But with schools across the country switching to entirely online learning programs in response to the coronavirus pandemic, the need to address the gap has become increasingly urgent.

“We’ve seen a much more focused, greater need during the COVID crisis,” said Guy Cherp, market vice president for Cox in the Wood River Valley.

The communications company is making temporary changes to two of its existing programs to address that need, Cherp said. One is the Connect2Compete program, which offers internet service for about $10 a month to families with school-age children who qualify for government assistance. Now, Cox is working with the School District to expedite the application process for local families in need and is offering the service free through May 15 to those who sign up.

“This is a program that has been in existence for a while that we’ve used to try to address the digital divide,” Cherp said. “Now more than ever, it’s especially relevant.”

For families that don’t qualify for the Connect2Compete program, Cox is offering 30 days free of charge to those who sign up for the company’s most basic level of internet, which typically costs about $20 a month. Cox has made its various Wi-Fi hotspots around the Wood River Valley accessible to the public as well, Cherp said.

Meanwhile, the School District is taking steps to bring internet access to kids who live outside of Cox’s service area. It has ordered several Wi-Fi hotspots of its own, which will be installed in school buses.

Details of the plan are still being worked out, Crocker said, but the district hopes to drive the buses throughout the school day to different locations around the county, where students can gather—with appropriate social distancing—and work on their school-issued laptops.

If it’s a nice day, students will be able to sit outside with their laptops, 6 feet apart, Crocker said.

We’re walking such a fine line, trying to provide a service for families but also trying to stay within the guidelines for coronavirus,” she said.

The district hasn’t yet determined what that setup might look like in colder or wetter weather, she said.

“I think we have to pray for good weather from now until the end of May,” she said.

Should a bus park near an apartment complex, she noted, the Wi-Fi connection may be strong enough to reach students in their apartments.

Crocker said the district is also considering what supervision of children at the hotspot buses might look like, especially for those with working parents.

This week, teachers are communicating with students and families to determine who might need additional resources to access the internet. The district hopes to have distributed Chromebook laptops to all elementary, middle and high school students by the end of next week, Crocker said.

Email the writer: gkauffman@mtexpress.com

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