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In rural Columbia County, getting (and staying) online can be tough. Vernonia schools turned to SpaceX to change that.

COURTESY PHOTO: KELSEY CARDWELL  - Vernonia School District Superintendent Aaron Miller stands in front of Mist Elementary School.The COVID-19 pandemic has muddied the waters in a lot of ways.

Is it safe to eat at a restaurant? Should I be wearing a mask outside? Does hand sanitizer actually do anything?

But it's made at least one thing abundantly clear: Internet access is an absolute must for 21st-century education.

"Faster and consistent internet speed means that schools are more effective during instruction or for administrative functions," said Michael Arthur, principal of Yankton Arthur Academy in St. Helens. "It helps across the board in all facets of education."

Arthur's charter school — which is affiliated with the St. Helens School District but has its own separate governing board and policies — is located in rural Yankton, a couple miles west of St. Helens city limits.

"We are lucky to be within the service area of Comcast," Arthur said, "Otherwise, it would cause much difficulty."

Education is back to being mostly in-person after a year or so of comprehensive distance learning, from March 2020 to early 2021. Even still, surging COVID-19 cases imperil in-person learning, as two state agencies warned last week, and several schools in neighboring Multnomah and Washington counties have already temporarily shifted back to remote learning.

If that happens in rural Columbia County, that could send families with poor-quality or no home internet connection back to square one.

Speaking of schools without adequate internet access, Arthur said, "It would not only make the function of the school/district more difficult, but it would also put those students at a distinct disadvantage to their peers in areas less rural."

Arthur notes that if a student or class is required to participate in comprehensive distance learning, the school has to provide online instruction.

"As one can imagine, not having access to high-speed internet, or any internet, makes this a challenge," Arthur said.

In the predominately rural Vernonia School District, which sprawls across a large expanse of Columbia and Washington counties, tiny Mist Elementary School recently got a huge technological boost.

High-speed web access at Mist Elementary is made possible thanks to the installation of SpaceX's latest Starlink technology, said the Northwest Regional Education Service District, which serves 20 school districts in Clatsop, Columbia, Tillamook and Washington counties.

"Link Oregon, Cascade Technology Alliance, Northwest Regional Education Service District and the Vernonia School District combined forces to identify funds, personnel and the technological infrastructure that brought high-speed internet to the remote school," the service district explained in an announcement of the new service.

For the past several years, the Vernonia School District has tried to upgrade the school to fiber-optic internet, but the district faced the high cost of running dedicated fiber line down miles of rural roads, the NWRESD said. Starlink relies on satellites in low Earth orbit, though, rather than fiber or cable lines that need to be installed.

The program was also eligible for federal grant money intended to support rural schools, as the NWRESD noted.

High-speed internet was finally spun up in mid-October at Mist Elementary.

Stuart Long, chief information officer for the Cascade Technology Alliance, said, "We had some really good conversations with Starlink. We're excited that they wanted to partner with us to help get the school online and get these kids served. We're just really thrilled to be able to help get them moving in a much higher capacity where they can actually have all the kids online, at the school, at one time."

Long had a chance to visit Mist Elementary and liked what he saw.

"It was really cool to see, because they have some amazing kids and amazing teachers," Long said. "Teachers have all their content online, in case they have to pivot in case of a quarantine."

He continued, "Prior to Starlink coming in, they were able to get maybe a few kids online at any one time. When we were there that day, they had all the kids online in both classrooms."

In a statement, Vernonia School District Superintendent Aaron Miller described the problem of poor connectivity as "a technology and equity issue" for Mist Elementary.

"All our students can now access technology at the same time, enhancing learning and teaching," Miller added.

The NWRESD suggests that the Starlink program at Mist Elementary could serve as a template for other schools in rural Oregon. Miller thinks so, too.

"My hope is that all districts will find ways such as this to meet their students' needs," Miller told the Spotlight. "Each and every student, regardless of where they live, deserves an equal opportunity to succeed. We are happy that here in Vernonia, with this partnership with Starlink, that we are helping families move closer to those equal opportunities."

Sauvie Island School, another public charter school affiliated with the Scappoose School District, has seen a big improvement in its connectivity that executive director Darla Meeuwsen attributes to Whiz to Coho Inc., the Hillsboro-based internet provider with which the school began contracting early last decade.

"Coho has been amazing to work with," Meeuwsen said. "When we had to go to comprehensive distance learning, they called me and said, 'Hey, how can we help?' They were able to open up more bandwidth for us.

"I think last year we ran on, like, 300 megabits, which is mind-blowing when you think of where we were in 2011."

Meeuwsen does, however, hope her school's internet access can improve even more.

"If we were able to have a fiber connection, just like all other metropolitan schools do, it would just be that much faster, that much more consistent," Meeuwsen said. "But for what we have right now, it is night and day."

For some students learning from home, internet access remains a challenge.

Columbia County conducted a study in 2019 on rural internet. Some respondents said they were quoted upward of $10,000 when they asked broadband internet providers how much it would cost for them to get high-speed internet at home.

The study recommended that the Columbia County government invest in building out what's called a middle-mile network to expand internet access as widely as possible in rural parts of the county. But that's a tall order, too: The study priced that project at more than $16 million in 2019 dollars.

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