Three weeks into their pursuit to connect Lewis County students to the internet in order to participate in online learning, United Way of Lewis County has connected more than 900 students as of Tuesday. The number jumped from 557, the figure reported to county commissioners just one day prior.
“We’ve got a couple hundred more we’re still chasing after,” Project Manager Phil Crocker told county commissioners Monday.
The team originally promised to connect 700 students, Crocker said. But the initial list of families without reliable internet connection, which started at about 100, quickly skyrocketed as school districts began to report out. The numbers may continue to grow. Crocker estimated that anywhere from 12 to 20 percent of families in Lewis County started the school year without reliable internet.
Crocker is leading the four-person team, which is being funded through a $150,000 grant with the county, as well as $50,000 donated by United Way. The project is a partnership between United Way, Lewis County PUD and Lewis County school districts.
Although commissioners commended the team for their work, Crocker said at the end of the nine week project, hundreds of students may be left unserved, and will have to continue driving to “community hotspots” in order to get online. The team has also already identified costs far exceeding the $200,000 currently available to them. Additional funding from the state has taken longer than anticipated to come through, Crocker said.
Crocker described an additional hurdle of having to wrestle with WiFi providers trying to take advantage of the situation.
“The industry has seen this as a bit of a gold mine,” Crocker said, noting that each school district may have to rely on a different combination of internet providers.
For now, the team is reaching out to families daily to connect them, spending much time driving around to “speed check” hotspots in order to determine which network can best connect each household. Some families have been set up with temporary solutions that are more expensive, and the team plans to circle back and install something more long-term.
Meanwhile, schools across the county are attempting to conduct online learning with some students who still don’t have reliable internet access. Because of the gap, some teachers have moved away from live Zoom classes, instead opting for pre-recorded lessons they can get to students on physical drives.