Bailey Whitehead-Price, Junior Aaron Mutio

Watauga High School senior Bailey Whitehead-Price and junior Aaron Mutio work on their school Chromebooks during an art class.

WATAUGA — Grant funding from the 1Million Project will allow Watauga High School to issue its students without home internet access a wireless cellular hotspot that allows for a high speed internet connection from any location free of charge.

According to Watauga County Schools, Watauga County is like many rural areas where broadband internet is not readily available in some parts in the community. WCS — which provides computers to every student in eighth through 12th grade to take home — recently received a grant from the 1Million Project that hopes to address at-home internet access issues for Watauga High School students.

The 1Million Project is a nonprofit founded by Marcelo Claure — the former CEO of Sprint. The organization states its mission is to help one million high school students who do not have reliable internet access at home to reach their full potential by giving them mobile devices that offer free high-speed internet access.

Watauga High School is set to hold an information session for families who indicated interest in receiving a hotspot at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 27, in the WHS auditorium. The meeting will provide an overview of the program and allow interested students to sign up for a device. Watauga County Schools Technology Director Nancy Zeiss said she hoped to have the devices in student hands in early September.

According to WCS, the devices provide internet coverage all hours of the day, operating on cellular network technology that may cover areas across the county that have not been reached by hard-wired networks. The school system stated that the devices will only be offered to ninth- through 12th-graders at this time.

WHS students were polled about their level of internet access at the start of the current school year as their computers were issued. More than 100 high schoolers indicated they did not have broadband access in their home, according to WCS.

Since the devices are cellular wireless hotspots, they do need cell phone coverage to operate, according to WCS spokesperson Garrett Price. He added that there will be some overlap between places in the county that have no reliable landline internet access in addition to having no reliable cell phone coverage, but that the grant funding “will go a long way to help in many cases.”

“I think reliable broadband access across Appalachia is an issue, one that requires a multi-faceted response on several levels,” Price said. “We are fortunate to have this grant that might help to mitigate that issue in some ways.”

The 1Million Project states that 70 percent of teachers assign homework that require internet access, and 5 million U.S. families with school-aged kids don’t have internet access.

“The demand from high schools to participate in our program has been tremendous,” stated the 1Million Project. “We currently have more than 225,000 students in 181 school districts across 33 states participating in our program.”

WCS teachers are careful to work with each student on a case-by-case basis, said Superintendent Scott Elliott. He said teachers are familiar with their students’ situations and would not assign work that would punish them for not having internet access. However, he said students are increasingly living in a digital world, and their education is no different.

“It is important that we all strike a balance with the appropriate amount of screen time, but for many students going home means having no internet access at all,” Elliott said. “Access to reliable high speed internet increasingly is a matter of equity and opportunity for our students, and this grant will help level the educational playing field for many students and families.”

Zeiss led the effort to bring the 1Million Project grant to the system. She said ensuring students’ access to high speed internet was vital to a modern education.

“It’s increasingly important that our students are able to reliably access the internet from home,” Zeiss said. “Through their own self-reporting and conversations with teachers and counselors, we hope to get these devices in the hands of students who need them most. I think it will have a tremendous impact for those students who have struggled to access online school work from home in the past.”

For more information, call the Watauga High School help desk at (828) 264-2407, Ext. 12209. More information on the 1Million Project can be found at 1millionproject.org.

Kayla Lasure contributed reporting to this article.

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