When Enbridge announced last Thursday, Aug. 21, that the Waubun-Ogema-White Earth and Mahnomen-Naytahwaush school districts would be the recipients of a $366,000 grant for enhanced broadband access and affordability, it was the culmination of a months-long collaboration between the three entities.
"They reached out to us at the end of the (2020-21) school year," said Mahnomen Superintendent Jeff Bisek, noting that both districts already had a relationship with Enbridge that was established during an earlier grant application process.
"Whenever Enbridge is working in your area, they have a kind of community outreach program where they try to invest in the community," explained Waubun Superintendent Lisa Weber.
Enbridge had reached out to both districts in 2020, asking if they had any COVID-19 related needs for things like personal protective equipment and cleaning supplies. Both districts then wrote successful grant requests for those items.
Bisek said that both districts identified broadband accessibility and affordability as a significant need.
"I had a map in my office of broadband coverage in our area that sparked some conversations about the need for connectivity and internet service," Weber said.
"It's kind of a two-pronged issue," Bisek added. "One is just the availability of (broadband) service, and the other is the affordability. We have a very high poverty population — both districts do. It's not just accessibility, but also a financial issue for a lot of our families."
Now that they have received the grant, both Bisek and Weber said the administration in their respective districts would be working closely with broadband providers in the area to get internet access for families in need.
While they hope to have the program ready to roll out by the start of fall classes, Weber said, there are a lot of different companies involved.
"We cover a fairly large geographic area, with multiple telecoms," said Bisek. "We’re trying to work with them to provide those services to the different neighborhoods, from north to south to east to west.
"The money is funneled through the school district," he continued, adding that the way it works is: Families apply for funding and, based on their free and reduced lunch status, can have all or part of their monthly internet bill paid directly to the company through which they receive service.
Weber said that the program will continue "until the money runs out."
"This is a significant issue," she added. "We want to service as many families as we can, for as long as we can. Our goal is to make sure we are providing equitable access to learning and when it runs out we will probably look for more (funding)."