A Plan To Bring High Speed Internet Into Navajo Students' Homes Receives Funding From Legislature
Updated 4:35 MDT 8/20/2020
The Utah Legislature has granted $3.9 million to extend the internet into the homes of public school students on the Navajo Nation in the state. The money is part of a larger coronavirus spending bill that passed Thursday afternoon.
The move comes after the San Juan School District rushed to get hotspots out to students on the Navajo Nation last spring when the coronavirus pandemic forced schools to close down. While the devices provided basic internet service, they were slow and didn’t work in some homes.
Over half of the 275 students at Whitehorse High School in Montezuma Creek weren’t online at the end of the school year, according to Principal Kim Schaefer.
“That’s a lot of people coming to the parking lot to download their content or possibly getting hard copies, if the internet thing doesn’t get fixed,” Schaefer said.
Now, the district is working on a new way to bring the internet into students’ homes. It will provide a connection that’s fast enough to stream videos, according to the district’s Technology Director Aaron Brewer.
“It would be just like you’re in our school on our internet,” Brewer said. “So if you want to watch Netflix, it’s not gonna do that. But you can watch YouTube, you can watch your professor. Those kinds of things.”
The district has already chosen Solectek, a company based in San Diego, to construct the network, which will use radio repeaters and receivers to extend the internet from each high school on the reservation into students’ homes. Brewer said the district will ensure the speed of the network does not meet the FCC definition of broadband, so that other internet service providers looking to build networks on the reservation won’t lose access to federal grants.
Brewer said the network will serve between 400 and 500 homes in Bluff, Montezuma Creek, Monument Valley, Navajo Mountain and White Mesa. That’s between 50-70% of students in the region. He said the $3.9 million from the legislature will allow the district to get the network up and running before the end of the year.
That would be a huge help to Kimberley Dee, a science teacher at Whitehorse. All elementary and high school students on the Navajo Nation in Utah will do at-home learning for at least the first quarter of this school year, so she has been adapting her curriculum to be delivered online.
“Kids who have the internet download their assignments and submit them digitally,” Dee said. “That’s an ideal way of doing things. If they don’t have that access, we will have to make copies and packets on a weekly basis to send out on the bus routes.”
And without internet access at home, she said some students may not be able to reach their teachers if they need help with an assignment.
“Even to keep a phone on is expensive to these families,” she said. “We take that for granted.”
A representative from the State Board of Education said the money will pass through the agency and it will have to ensure the project complies with federal stipulations related to the CARES Act.
Kate Groetzinger is a Report for America corps member who reports from KUER's Southeast Bureau in San Juan County. Follow Kate on Twitter @kgroetzi.