As schools have moved to new learning models due to COVID-19, the need for reliable internet connection has become even more important.
Within the community, there are students struggling to get adequate internet access. Even as students begin to return to in-person classes, at least half of their week is currently digital.
The Better Together Southern Arizona Coalition is seeking to bridge the digital divide for Sahuarita Unified School District and Continental Elementary School District students with the Connect Our Students Project.
While the districts have ensured students are provided with technology devices like Chromebooks, accessing the internet from their homes is still a barrier for some, especially those in more rural communities.
Diane Diamond, convener of Connect Our Students, said the idea for this project came from a community desire to ensure all children receive the access they need to be successful in school.
“Every student should have equal access to education and a large percentage of kids are signed up for free or reduced lunches, which is the criteria for identifying students who need the connection,” she said. “There are way too many kids who can't get a quality education because they don’t have internet access. We can fix that. We can fix that as a community.”
The project was formed through a group of community members and representatives from organizations including Better Together, Sahuarita Food Bank and Community Resource Center, Sahuarita Educational Enrichment Fund, SUSD, CESD, Greater Green Valley Community Foundation and Trico Electric Cooperative.
Diamond said the schools’ involvement was a key aspect of the project and SUSD is in the process of determining how best to get students connected.
It's a problem
Assistant Superintendent Brett Bonner said internet access is a problem for some of the families within the district.
“Though we were able to secure technology devices there was the underlying issue of internet connectivity with families in need or in rural settings where the type of internet access or companies are limited or not available,” he said.
Bonner said they are in discussions with local internet providers to see how they can use points on district internet towers to install digital access points or offer reduced rates on internet services.
Currently, Connect Our Students is seeking donations to fund the internet for families. Their initial goal is to reach $30,000.
“Our goal is to get every kid connected,” Diamond said. “We saw a real opportunity through Sahuarita and Green Valley to have individuals and businesses step up and say, ‘I can make sure one kid gets connected.’”
A $350 donation can provide a student and their family with an internet connection for the whole school year through a WISP tower. A $100 donation can cover a student’s access for COX Connect2Compete, a program through Cox which provides qualifying students internet access for a discounted rate, for seven months.
The school districts will be responsible for identifying students who may need connectivity assistance. Students will qualify for the assistance if they receive aid through the Federal Free and Reduced Lunches program.
About 40 percent of the students at SUSD and CESD would qualify.
Bonner said the district will meet with school principals to help get the word out on applications for connectivity help. Even students who are not part of the Federal Free and Reduced Lunches program could apply.
“Students will apply through an application process and it does not matter the demographics,” he said. “We’re committed to creating fair and equitable opportunities for all students and not having the internet shouldn’t be an obstacle to education.”
Looking for grants
Along with donations, Connect Our Students is also applying for grants. The Greater Green Valley Community Foundation, who is serving as the fiduciary on the project, already provided them a seed grant of $3,000.
Joyce Finkelstein is a member of the group and said ultimately, this project is designed to try and help students achieve even greater things.
“I want every student to be connected,” she said. “Unfortunately, if a student does not have access they’re going to be behind their peers.”
She noted that even when classes go back to their traditional format in the future, internet access is still crucial.
“Our students’ public schools need to be the best they can to develop students in the best way,” she said. “Whenever they go back to more in-person learning the way they learn will be forever changed and they’ll have more access to more information.”