The Kodiak Island School District was awarded over half a million dollars from the state to increase broadband access in Kodiak’s villages, as schools turn toward social distance learning amid the coronavirus pandemic. 

The $542,428 School Broadband Assistance Grant will be used to increase broadband from 10 or 15 Mbps to 25 Mbps of download capacity. The grant award was announced at a June 15 school board meeting. 

The increased bandwidth will allow higher upload speeds and more reliable distance delivery in real time, said School District Superintendent Larry LeDoux. 

Increased internet speeds will help solve issues of freezing screens and pixelated videos that are often prevalent in rural schools. 

“It’s a real step forward. Bandwidth is a real challenge. We could never afford this without that kind of subsidy,” he said.

While the city of Kodiak has high-speed internet service through the connection of a fiber optic cable, more rural sites depend on satellites or other ways to access the internet, which are often expensive or limited, LeDoux said. 

This is the first year that the school district has received enough to be able to pay for the higher capacity broadband. 

According to the state, the island has received between $11,000 and $80,000 in awards over the past several years from bandwidth assistance grants. 

“We’ve been getting BAG grants for a while,” LeDoux said. “We’ve been advocating for higher bandwidth for a long time. We appreciate the effort of Sen. (Gary) Stevens and Rep. Louise Stutes,” he said. 

He noted that the two legislators have been long-time champions of increasing broadband to Kodiak’s rural villages. 

As Kodiak gears up for a new school year during the coronavirus pandemic, the grant was timely, LeDoux said. 

“Since essentially we prepare for the unknown, anything that we can do that adds flexibility to our options is a good thing. It's our intent to deliver quality programs to wherever kids live,” he said.  

At the June 15 meeting, the school board also announced the award of a $90,873 grant to fund this year’s pre-elementary summer education program. 

The award was a continuation of a previous three-year grant for over $340,000. Although the school district received the funds in April, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the award notice was officially sent out this month. 

“That grant ended at the end of the school year. This extension allowed us to continue the work for families and kiddos through the summer,” said Kim Saunders, the assistant director of special services. 

Over 100 families have signed up for the summer program, which provides virtual classes for parents who want to learn about conscious discipline and children ages 3 to 5 who need one-on-one instruction from a teacher. 

The curriculum includes a range of activities from singing songs to literature-based activities. The district is also offering conscious discipline instruction in Spanish. 

“A parent might read a book with a student and we might say, ‘where is an outdoor activity you can do that goes along with that book?’” Saunders said. 

The COVID-19 pandemic and the transition to distance learning has been an especially challenging issue for children in pre-K classes, whose learning focuses around social interactions and exploration. 

 Saunders said that one of the main goals of pre-elementary education is socialization, which is difficult to facilitate in an online classroom. 

“We are constantly looking for creative ways to engage the kids, increase their language as well as their motor skills,” Saunders said. “Every time you have hunker down orders, it will impact the youngest children because their world gets smaller.” 

She said the grant and the summer program will give the schools an opportunity to explore creative ways to continue teaching those things to their youngest students. 

“It's really exciting, and trying some new innovative things is inspiring to try to help facilitate the best that we can in the situation that we are in,” she said, adding that although parents are always their biggest educational partners, the success of the program will depend on how well the schools engage families. 

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