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Minnesota Youth Council COVID-19 Issues: Distance Learning and the Lack of Broadband in Minnesota

The Minnesota Youth Council (MYC) is a collaboration of youth and adults working together to empower and mobilize young people across the state to exercise their voices, opinions, and ideas, as well as take action on issues affecting youth. As the established “voice of youth” to the state, we feel it necessary to raise awareness to the issues that young people are facing. Currently, Minnesota is in the transitioning stage of a ‘new normal’ due to COVID-19. Students and Educators across the globe are all experiencing these extreme hardships along with the uncertainty of what’s to come. To flatten the curve and avoid the spread of COVID-19, Governor Walz announced that all Minnesota schools would be closed through the end  of the year and we would move to a distance learning model.

Distance learning is a way of being educated remotely without face-to-face contact with teachers and other students. Teachers have been tasked to make all of their lesson plans online-friendly and create new platforms for their students to communicate with each other and their educators; however, there is one problem with that: internet access.  Lack of broadband in Minnesota is an equity issue statewide and we recognize that with a need for higher usage of technology, students without easy access are at an even greater disadvantage than before. Students without access to the internet are forced to use paper copies, and they don’t have the ability to contact teachers for additional assistance as easily. We live in a world of technology, so not having the internet immediately sets students further apart from their peers. Contrary to the belief that everyone has access to the internet, there are 336 school districts in the State of Minnesota that cater to approximately 845,400 students a year, an estimated 50,000 of which don’t have access to the internet at home. Luckily for us, a few companies have stepped in to give more students access to the internet.

Spectrum Internet is partnering with school districts across the state to ensure that local communities are aware of the tools available, and know how to use them. Spectrum will also have carefully placed hotspots located across the state for public usage, as well as a plan for low-income households, which grants free internet access to students Pre-K to 12 grade for 60 days as long as they don’t already have an existing wireless network. Xfinity Hotspots are also being opened up to the public for no fee. These hotspots are typically in more urban areas, such as: Duluth and the Metro area and the connection speed lies solely on how many users are online at a given time. You can only access Xfinity Hotspots from home if you are within close proximity to said Hotspot. Last, but not least, Minnesota Afterschool Advance is reaching out to help families without technology to secure electronic items (for up to $200) for 75% off. 

Heather Lucas, a high school history teacher at Voyageurs Expeditionary School in Bemidji, MN says:

“We are finding that simply helping families acquire internet access is not enough.  Students who started distance learning without access were ‘out of the loop’ for almost a week and needed to catch up to their peers or submit paper copies of work with minimal technology. Students might have homes with minimal technology and lack of technical support. On top of that, some of my students help their siblings with school work during the day and then stay up late to complete their own work. They share computers, internet access, and work space. 

The lack of equity issue remains a problem in that many families are suspicious of outside ‘gifts’ such as internet access or are not comfortable with technology in general. Giving a family internet access is part of the problem but an extension of that is that families in need of financial assistance to connect to schools may have additional needs. These needs include child care for younger children so older siblings may participate in classes, the need for food, or access to specialists.”

This is a trying time for everyone in the state and the MYC is extremely proud of students and teachers alike for bearing with us and trying your best to remain optimistic about the future. We don’t know when COVID-19 will pass and we don’t know how long we will be under a Shelter At Home order, but we are so grateful to be doing our part and equally as grateful for all of you, doing yours. We hope you’ll take advantage of the resources we’ve referenced  and continue to stay up-to-date on new legislation and break-throughs regarding COVID-19. The Minnesota Youth Council asks all young people to adhere to the Governor’s request to stay home and continue their schooling. If we work together, we will overcome this. 

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