Fifty families in West Marin are set to receive free satellite internet service for the next three years as part of a new project to address internet access disparities for students in rural communities.
The initiative, led by a partnership between the county government, Shoreline Unified School District, Marin County Free Library and service organizations, has already rolled out SpaceX’s satellite internet service, Starlink, for 25 families, and 25 more will follow in the coming years. month.
The “Shoreline Connectivity Project” is intended to help families with poor internet access or lack of computer skills who have fallen behind with the onset of the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting shift of schools to more education. on line.
“Once the kids went back to school, things still didn’t go back to the pre-COVID days,” said Balandra Fregoso, executive director of the Parent Services Project, a nonprofit group in San Rafael. who is a program partner. “Many meetings take place via Zoom. What the pandemic has done is it has opened up this gap that we didn’t know existed around tech equity. We are still teaching parents about the platforms used by schools. »
Many families served by the new program live on ranches in western Marin, where internet service is limited. Most of the families are also Spanish-speaking, Fregoso said.
Carolina Renteria, who lives off Highway 1 in Point Reyes, said her family’s poor internet connection caused conflict among her four school-age children during the pandemic, when remote learning was mandatory. If the four children tried to connect to the Internet to attend classes or work, they often lost the connection. School-issued hotspots haven’t done much to alleviate the problem either, she said.
As a result, Renteria said her youngest child, who was attending kindergarten at the time, would sometimes have to miss classes so her other siblings in higher grades could attend theirs.
But after being contacted by the Shoreline Unified School District about the new connectivity project and having Starlink equipment installed in their home this year, Renteria said their connection issues disappeared.
“It was a big change,” Renteria said, speaking through an interpreter. “It doesn’t drag on and we don’t fight over who can use the internet anymore. It’s good quality. I can be more connected because I don’t have to wait and it’s just fast.
The project is estimated at approximately $390,000 and is funded by the US Federal Bailout Recovery Program, Marin Community Foundation, Pinkus Family Foundation, West Marin Fund, Shoreline Unified School District, and Federal Emergency Connectivity Fund .
The project is the county’s latest to address internet connectivity issues, especially in low-income communities, since the pandemic began. Other projects include free Wi-Fi networks to serve hundreds of homes in the San Rafael Canal District and Marin City.
“The idea was to work in many different communities and geographic regions of the county, all of which are very different and have very different needs,” said Javier Trujillo, deputy director of the county’s information services and technology department. of Marin.
Efforts to resolve connection issues in West Marin began in 2021. For areas near Tomales Bay and to the north, wireless internet connection may be lacking and geography makes high fiber expansion throughput prohibitive for now, said Trujillo.
As a result, the county turned to Starlink, which uses thousands of low-orbit satellites to deliver broadband Internet service to areas that would otherwise be hard to reach.
To identify families who would be part of the new program, the Parent Service Project worked with the Shoreline Unified School District to identify families who needed the service the most. The nonprofit group had previously worked with area families to teach computer skills during the pandemic and is now helping families install Starlink kits.
At the Shoreline Unified School District, 55% of students are eligible for a free and reduced lunch from the data in 2020-21, according to Maria Niggle of the Marin Promise Partnership. Forty-six students had no internet connection at home and 52 students had to travel to learning centers set up in the area to connect to the internet, Niggle said.
“What we were hearing from family advocates for schools was that parents were driving miles to get their kids cell service and they were sitting in their cars for hours trying to access their education. “said Niggle.
The Marin Promise Partnership, which works to collect data and coordinate the various project partners, is a network of more than 100 schools, nonprofit groups, businesses and government agencies focused on addressing equity issues. in education. Niggle said he hopes to get more sources of funding to expand the project to more families.
Fregoso said the Parent Service Project trains parents who have received Starlink service and other community members to become mentors for other families around digital literacy and computer literacy. .
“It took two years and we finally launched it,” Fregoso said of the project. “It’s really exciting to see and I know we are making a difference in the lives of families. I’m sad that this equity gap exists, but I think we’re doing a great job of closing it one device at a time.
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