When COVID-19 hit, the internet became an essential school supply. Districts in the Denver metro area scrambled to meet the need, collectively spending more than $1 million in the past five months to buy mobile hotspots and pay families’ internet bills so children could learn. Philanthropies and foundations have spent even more.
But the effort hasn’t been enough. Tens of thousands of Colorado students still don’t have internet access at a time when half of students statewide are starting the school year virtually, and those taking classes in person may have to move online on short notice.
Even families who have gotten connected say the low-cost or temporary options often touted as a solution to bridge Colorado’s gaping digital divide can be slow and unreliable. And the cost of high-speed internet is just one barrier. Other problems include geography and infrastructure, and not just for rural Coloradans.
“Out here, internet can be shaky at best,” said Zuton Lucero-Mills, a mother of five who lives in the Green Valley Ranch neighborhood in far northeast Denver.
Some lawmakers, superintendents, and education advocates are calling for a fundamental shift in the way Colorado thinks about internet access, arguing it should be treated less like a luxury and more like a public utility. But such a shift would take time and money. And until it happens, many families — often low-income families of color — face difficult choices.