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Utah spent $6 million to help students get on the internet. It barely moved the needle.

The state reduced the number of kids needing a connection from 13% to 12%.

(Zak Podmore | The Salt Lake Tribune) Tower technicians work to bring internet to students in the Navajo Nation community of Halchita on December 8, 2020.

When the pandemic started, state education officials estimated that 13% of students across Utah didn’t have access to the internet — and wouldn’t be able to continue their education when classes shifted online.

So they quickly launched a program to help get routers and hotspots directly to those kids’ homes.

But after $6 million, their efforts hardly moved the needle. Now, more than a year later, about 12% of students still don’t have access.

Details about the limited impact from the large investment came in a report filed Thursday to the Utah State Board of Education. Board members, though, opted not to discuss the findings during their monthly meeting.

The report offers the first real updated analysis of how many students statewide are unconnected and the hurdles that school districts faced in trying to bridge the digital divide here. It concludes that there remains a “substantial proportion of students who continued to lack adequate internet access as of May 2021.”

One teacher, whose experience was included in the findings, wrote: “I don’t feel at this time that most of my students have the internet accessibility that they need in order to be successful while we are doing distance and virtual learning.”

The state started its work on improving internet connections for students in March 2020, when all students were sent home. By that August, most Utah schools were open again for in-person learning, but many families were reticent to send their kids back with the virus. And many schools opened and closed repeatedly with COVID-19 outbreaks.

The report estimates that in the majority of schools districts, around 50% of households opted to keep their students learning virtually for safety. And one school district — Salt Lake City — started the year entirely online for all students. That presented a challenge for those that didn’t have internet at home.

“Internet access is critical for education systems to respond effectively to school closures caused by the coronavirus pandemic,” the report notes.

In the last academic year, there were roughly 666,000 public K-12 students in Utah. If 13% didn’t have the internet, that’s about 86,500 kids.

With the state’s program — run through the Utah State Board of Education and the Utah Education and Telehealth Network — each school district or charter could apply for a grant, up to $300,000, to help provide access to those students with hotspots, broadband networks and Chromebooks. But there was no uniform system, according to the report, for those districts to identify which students needed a connection and how best to provide that. It was left up to each school.

In some, teachers identified which students could use the help. In others, parents were sent a survey. That proved to be somewhat ineffective in getting responses because checking emails is hard to do when you already don’t have internet.

One district administrator wrote in the report: “I hoped for more success. I think that the hundreds of families that we’ve helped has been dramatic, but I wish we had done more. We had thousands that we really could have targeted.”

Of the districts surveyed, 91% said they didn’t help as many students as they had anticipated. The report added: “No respondents indicated they provided solutions to more students than anticipated.”

Some schools districts, including San Juan County, which sits in a remote and rural corner of the state, used GPS coordinates for students’ houses to determine where there wasn’t internet, particularly on the Navajo Nation. They then did home visits to set up services. Prior to that, the district’s teachers had been confined to using paper packets, sent by bus to each kid’s house, to conduct classes with so few students connected to the internet.

The report noted that was an example of success in targeting where devices were needed. Rural areas and families with lower incomes are impacted the most by a lack of internet, it said. So it also recommended in the future that schools use “indicators of economic disadvantage or indicators of school attendance or performance as a basis for determining program eligibility.” That could include reviewing students who qualify for free or reduced lunch.

But, it noted, even that can be difficult. One school district did look at its list, which 70% of its students are on. It had to narrow down from there on who it could help with the funding.

And some districts struggled, even when they did get a hotspot to a house, to keep them working effectively.

One teacher said: “The hotspots have been wonderful WHEN THEY WORK, but the service providers in this area are limited and the internet service is very slow at times.”

Others said students gave up in frustration. Some said when there was more than one kid living in a house, it was impossible for multiple students to connect and do their homework. A few families said they ended up being charged by the provider to install the network when the program was supposed to be free to them.

That is not to say there weren’t also successes. The report notes that many families said that it was helpful to have a hotspot — both for their kid and for them.

The findings say: “They could also use the internet to search for jobs, learn English, and communicate with their child’s teacher if they did not have a cell phone.”

Other teachers said, even with the issues, it helped so that the entire year wasn’t a learning loss.

But there is work to be done to improve the program moving forward.

In the end, with the grants, school districts and charters connected about 10,000 students across 7,100 households. That lowered the total percent of students who needed help by just 1%. And it leaves somewhere between 75,000 and 79,000 still without internet.

Some school districts, including San Juan, are working on internet solutions, too, outside of the grants. Murray School District in Salt Lake County launched its own LTE network. Some, like Millard School District in west-central Utah, have parked its buses in neighborhoods to supply students with a Wi-Fi hotspot.

The hope is that those will also chip away at the issue, with time.

The grants will also continue again this academic year, as the bugs continued to be worked out.

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