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State School Board to seek $5 million-plus to enhance Utah students’ broadband access

A Wi-Fi antenna on the side of a field house at East High School’s football field in Salt Lake City is pictured on Thursday, Dec. 3, 2020. This antenna and another near the school’s student parking lot allow for students who may not have internet connectivity at home to park nearby and connect so they can fulfill remote-learning tasks.
A Wi-Fi antenna on the side of a field house at East High School’s football field in Salt Lake City is pictured on Thursday, Dec. 3, 2020. This antenna and another near the school’s student parking lot allow for students who may not have internet connectivity at home to park nearby and connect so they can fulfill remote-learning tasks.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — With CARES Act funding winding down and COVID-19 cases spiking across the nation, a full return to in-person learning in Utah public schools may be a ways away.

With that in mind, the Utah State Board of Education considered Thursday prioritizing a $5 million request to the Legislature to sustain and expand broadband access for students through a board program initially funded by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act.

The goal is to support remote learning and “promote equitable access to highly effective teachers,” according to State School Board documents.

Utah public schools have utilized remote learning in varying degrees, some to serve students who are isolating due to illness or COVID-19 exposure or because they have opted for virtual learning this school year, and others that have been forced to pivot to online learning because of active COVID-19 cases in their school.

Salt Lake City is the only school district that has solely offered remote instruction since the start of the school year, and it has labored to provide broadband access and laptops to its 20,000-plus students who need them.

Sam Quantz, the Salt Lake City School District’s chief information officer, in an interview Thursday said federal support distributed to the school district enabled it to purchase hundreds of personal hot spots to distribute to students.

If there had been no additional support, “I think we could have handled probably about a third of what we’ve done to get us up and running, and that would have been one-time funds. We definitely would have had to divert other funds from other places to make it sustainable,” he said.

The school district also used the State School Board’s grant program to pay for in-home internet access for a year in a partnership between the Salt Lake Education Foundation and Comcast with its Internet Essentials program, which provides a 25-megabyte line into users’ homes.

The school district has provided other means of access, such as installing Wi-Fi at high school football stadiums, which allows students or parents to drive into parking lots and do their schoolwork.

Quantz said the school district also experimented with parking Wi-Fi-equipped school buses at apartment complexes but the signal could not readily penetrate building walls and it served a limited radius. However, the buses are used for other purposes such as visiting apartment complexes to conduct school registration.

The district spent some $250,000 on equipment and to purchase services to ensure students can access Wi-Fi to participate in school, but it is a stop-gap measure until broadband service becomes more widely available.

As State Superintendent of Public Instruction Sydnee Dickson explains: “We have to treat broadband as an essential utility, like electricity, in order to bridge the digital divide and resulting knowledge gap for families.”

On Thursday, the school board voted to support the request to the Legislature, which will convene its 45-day session on Jan. 19. The request of $5 million in one-time money and $350,000 in ongoing funding was among other top priorities considered by the board.

Other priorities included:

• $5 million ongoing for early grades educator training;

• $8.6 million ongoing for optional enhanced kindergarten;

• $12 million one time for a three-year intensive special education services pilot;

• $10 million one time in supports for at-risk students; and

• $5 million one time to reengage learners who have become disconnected during the pandemic.

The latter would be used by schools or districts to hire parent liaisons or tutors to locate students who have gone missing, are not currently engaged or are “casually engaged with the education community,” according to board documents.

Last month, the board agreed to seek a 4% increase to the value of the weighted-pupil unit, the basic building block of state education funding.