How E-Rate is Impacting Students Inside and Out of The Classroom 

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By Anne Tetamore
Marketing Director
Hunter Communications - HunterFiber.com

When COVID-19 shut down schools and libraries across the United States last year, many families with school-aged children who did not have access to high-speed internet were significantly impacted. Ranked 34th in the nation for broadband access, less than half of Oregon’s residents have access to fiber-optic internet. 

To bridge the digital divide, schools and libraries including the Sunny Wolf Charter School and the Josephine Community Library in Wolf Creek, turned to E-Rate to request funds so students could access reliable internet when they needed it the most.

What is E-Rate?

The FCC states that E-Rate makes internet services more affordable for schools and libraries. Through the government’s Universal Service Fund, E-Rate provides discounts on telecommunications, internet service, and internet access. Government funding for E-Rate in 2020 topped out at more than $4.22 billion and is scheduled to reach $7 billion in 2021.

The program’s goal is to provide rural schools and libraries, and those with financial need the services necessary for the success of their students, faculty, and administration.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the need for E-Rate funds was more prevalent than ever in 2020. This led the government to extend E-Rate and offer additional funds due to increased reliance on, and demand for, more reliable internet service throughout the U.S.  

Going Above and Beyond

Before the pandemic, the Sunny Wolf Charter School, partnered with the Josephine Community Library to apply for E-Rate funds that would upgrade both organization’s DSL internet service to fiber-optic internet.   

Hunter Communications was chosen to complete the work and set out in early 2020, laying nearly 20 miles of fiber over rugged terrain that no other provider wanted to take on. “Hunter Communications worked with the Oregon Department of Transportation to stop traffic on Interstate 5 during construction so we could run support lines and fiber-optic cable across two large canyons,” said Carey Cahill, Vice-President of Sales and Marketing for Hunter Communications. “Our construction crews also installed over 20 additional poles with 164 fiber attachments between Hugo and Wolf Creek to make fiber-optic internet service a reality for the school and the library,” he continued.

E-Rate at Work in Our Community

No more than a week before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down schools, Hunter Communications provided Sunny Wolf Charter School and the Josephine Community Library with their fiber-optic internet connections. “It couldn’t have come at a better time,” said Shawn Hardy, 5th, and 6th Grade Math and Science Teacher and Technology Coordinator for Sunny Wolf Charter School.   

“Approximately 99% of our 114 K-6 students either don’t have access to the internet at home or have a slow, unreliable connection,” he continued.

Hardy knew the restrictions from attending school in-person called for creative means to make the school’s new fiber connection accessible to the students. He purchased an antenna to broadcast the internet signal to the parking lot. While picking up their lunches or dropping off their schoolwork, students came to school, logged onto the internet, downloaded their assignments, and participated in educational online activities.

According to Hardy, “Part of our mission is to be the center of our community. By allowing the students to come to school to utilize the internet, it not only helped them academically but also socially and emotionally as they were able to interact with their peers at a safe distance.”

The fiber-optic internet connection the Josephine Community Library received from Hunter also allowed them to provide a reliable connection to community.  “The speed was 100 times faster than our previous provider, said Kate Lasky, Director of the Josephine Community Library. 

“During the pandemic, people would come to the library, check out a laptop, and use it along with our wi-fi signal in the parking lot to complete their work.  It was a game changer for so many,” she continued.

Back To In-Person Learning

In September 2020, students returned to in-person learning using internet-connected devices daily for research and presentations. “Technology is an integral part of what we do. Without a steady internet connection, we would not be able to give our students the 21st-century skills they need as they move onto secondary school,” said Hardy.

The need for a stable connection did not end there.  Programs the children would normally participate in-person were held virtually, thanks to the school’s new fiber-optic internet from Hunter Communications.  Every year the school participates in a field trip to the Grants Pass Museum of Art. This year the students took their field trip virtually. “We would never have been able to do that with our old DSL internet connection,” said Hardy.

At the library, the increase in speed has been beneficial for patrons as well as employees since they no longer need to manually check out items and can do it all online.  “Our entire catalog is hosted in New Jersey, so without dependable internet it is impossible for us to access our records and provide the community with the resources they need,” said Lasky.  “We have been offering computer hours during the pandemic to ensure physical distancing and partnering with other agencies to access the computers in support of GED and workforce development. Without reliable speeds, these important services would not be available,” she continued.

More Than Just A Connection

Across the United States, rural communities like Wolf Creek have had steadily increasing reliable internet service the last few years because of programs like E-Rate. It is more than just providing fiber-optic internet to those most in need in Southern Oregon for Hunter Communications.   “Offering a viable internet connection for these students during and after the pandemic gives them the tools they need to stay on par with their peers and not fall behind academically,” said Cahill. “We’re a local company and we take pride in supporting our local community.”

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