The Eldon R-1 and Osage R-3 (Fatima) school districts are awaiting acceptance for the Missouri Connect & Learn Initiative, which supports school district leaders in obtaining fiber infrastructure and enough bandwidth to ensure all students in the state have adequate internet access to support digital learning classrooms, even in small rural districts.
Fatima Superintendent Chuck Woody said he gets excited every time the phone rings in hopes for word the district will receive the more than $360,000 it requested to provide reliable broadband internet that is crucial during online testing periods.
"We are sitting with our fingers crossed waiting," Woody said.
The $45 million program, which has been promoted by Gov. Eric Greitens for more than a year, is a partnership between the Office of the Governor, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and the national nonprofit Education SuperHighway. Missouri is required to provide $6 million to be matched by $39 million in federal funding.
The project has started slowly, having received only 12 applications by early April, though it is open to any public school in Missouri. Those districts have already bid out the projects and selected an internet provider. Funding requests have amounted to less than 5 percent of the allocated budget.
Eldon Superintendent Matt Davis said the initiative's slow start may be due to the difficulty of signing up for the program and that many rural school districts might not have heard of the program yet. Eldon learned of the initiative through an area internet provider, and it took a lot of time and effort to apply for the program, he said.
"The state has been great to work with, once we reached out to them and told them what we are doing, but schools might not be signing up because it's a lot of work through federal E-Rate. It takes a lot of time and we are trying to plan our budgets," Davis said. "If we start letting other superintendents know, (the program) will start taking off. That's normally how things get going is one or two schools end up doing it and the rest of them want to know what's going on."
Davis said the Eldon district's 250-megabyte internet system has been adequate for the most part, other than when lightning strikes take out the Wi-Fi radio transmitted from the high school to other facilities. However, developing technology and an increasing dependence on online testing and course materials mean Eldon needs to be ready for future advancements.
Eldon's approximately $100,000 request would provide 10-gigabit internet capabilities and sufficient Wi-Fi for an additional 300 Chromebooks to add to the district's current supply of more than 850 Chromebooks and 1,100 desktops for its roughly 1,800 students, as well as staff members.
"Everything we do is connected to the computer now," Davis said. "We believe that there are opportunities and applications out there that we don't know about yet, but we feel like we have to have our infrastructure ready so that when it does come, we're not trying to build our infrastructure. We can say, 'Here's a tool that we believe can help our students be more successful.'"
Davis said he hopes to be notified if the district's application has been accepted by the federal E-Rate program by mid-June. If accepted, it will take about six months to begin installing 2-3 miles of cable. Davis would like to have the new internet system operational in December.
Woody said the Westphalia area school district's current internet system provides 30 megabytes, but the district could jump to a gigabyte if accepted into the initiative. That will require installing 6-7 miles of cable from the vicinity of the U.S. 50/63 highway junction to the school.
Under the current internet system, Woody said, the district has to manage its internet usage, especially during online testing periods.
"We have to at least really limit what we are doing," Woody said. "Let's say a science teacher wants to stream a science-related video or a dissection. We would have to know they're not going to be able to do that during that time period because we are testing down the hallway in a computer lab and those tests have to take priority."
Woody said students and staff are excited about the possibility of increasing internet capabilities, and he hopes to have the new system in operation as soon as possible.
"I'd love to have it at the start of the school year," he said. "Is that realistic? I don't know that. It just depends on if we are chosen, and I have a good feeling that we will be."