State parks among new Wi-Fi points for NC students

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- With no end to the pandemic in sight, many public school students will continue to learn remotely.

But while internet service is readily available to many of us, it's out of reach for many others because they can't afford it or it's not available where they live.

That's why Wi-Fi access is now available at state parks and other places as part of the state's Park and Learn project.

"We really been trying to get more connectivity out to places where people would feel comfortable gathering, particularly students who might have to do remote learning," said Mary Penny Kelley, the executive director of the state's Hometown Strong initiative to better serve rural communities.

Thanks to taxpayers, nonprofits and school systems, many students who couldn't afford a computer for remote learning have been given a laptop.

But those computing devices are no good without an internet connection.

That's why during the pandemic, Hometown Strong has partnered with other state agencies to try to help students get access to computers and the internet.

"Not everyone had internet at home," Kelley said, "So we've done over about 80,000 hotspots to get individual cellular internet to kids at home, but not everybody has a cell signal."

So the state set up a program called NC Student Connect.

Free high-speed Wi-Fi connections were installed at more than 200 schools, libraries, and community centers, Kelley said.

"Every student needs to be connected and have a, you know, the same opportunity as every other student not based on whether you're in an urban center or rural or even within the urban centers there are spots that just don't have good coverage," Kelley said. "So, we need to try and get the resources out there."

Using state funds and stimulus money, the number of free Wi-Fi sites has now been more than doubled to 420.

The latest addition is the Park and Learn program, which has set up free high-speed Wi-Fi set-ups at state parks and historic sites across North Carolina.

Many of those sites are in rural communities and familiar to the people who live in those areas.

"That's why we picked places they might be visiting anyway, or know where they're located and feel comfortable at," said Kelley.

She noted that students can work from their cars at those sites or get out and use picnic tables that allow social distancing.

At Umstead State Park in Raleigh, a table has been added to the patio at the visitor's center.

Kelley noted that the state plans to continue to provide the Wi-Fi access even after students return to in-person classes.

"Education has been our focus, but telehealth would be another obvious extension to be able to connect with your medical doctors particularly in rural areas where you may not have a hospital close by," she said.

The state has an online interactive map of free Wi-Fi locations to try to make it easier for students and others to connect.
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