Getting broadband internet access to rural areas has been a goal for rural advocates and service providers alike for years, but the COVID-19 pandemic has made such access more important than ever.

Workers who can in many areas have been moved to working from home. Schools throughout the region have been closed, with instruction moving to homes, and many schools intend to continue teaching with the help of technology. That’s easier for some than others.

Amanda Eney, a middle school science teacher at Cut Bank (Mont.) Middle School on Wednesday, March 25, was trying to figure out how to keep teaching science to seventh and eighth graders. Cut Bank, in northern Montana’s Glacier County, has a high poverty rate, and Eney said it also has a high rate of students who are not proficient in language arts. As she prepares lesson plans to continue educating students while schools are closed due to efforts to prevent or slow the spread of coronavirus, internet will be a big factor in what she does.

“It’s extremely important, because any kind of instruction that I provide to my students has to be done online,” she said. “And I would say at least 90% of communication needs to happen online.”

The school hasn’t learned yet how many students have internet access at home, but Eney knows some in rural areas have it only through a cellphone. That changes what she can expect of students; it wouldn’t make sense to make a student write a paper on a smartphone.

“We are modifying our expectations right now, as well as our workload for our students because of what’s going on,” she said.

In other places, moving online has been easier.

Seth Arndorfer, the CEO of DCN, which is owned by North Dakota’s independent rural telecommunications companies, said internet usage on the member companies’ systems increased by 10% to 40% during the first 10 days since people in the state were urged to stay home. Internet congestion and slowdowns have been more rare than in some places, because North Dakota already had the ability to expand bandwidth.

It’s been similar in South Dakota. Jake VanDewater is the vice president of engineering, operations and IT at SDN Communications, a South Dakota company that provides business to business internet and also has 17 rural telephone companies that it works with to provide broadband service to rural areas across the state. He said the companies have been preparing for a few weeks for the changes that would come with people staying home more. While they continue to monitor changes in use patterns, so far, things are going well.

“We really got ahead of this a couple weeks ago,” he said.

Arndorfer said North Dakota’s companies, like many others across the country, have signed on to Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai’s March 13 “Keep Americans Connected Pledge,” in which he asked them to take steps to make sure people do not lose their broadband or telephone connectivity.

“DCN and our 14 independent rural broadband service providers across the state have really stepped up to the challenge to make sure that our kids have broadband connectivity to get them ready to start learning from home, that our employees and our customers’ employees have a reliable broadband connection as they transition to life at home and working from home for really an undetermined amount of time,” Arndorfer said.

The companies from both DCN and SDN have worked with schools to make sure students who didn’t previously have internet service at home can get online. For some, that means bringing broadband to their homes and providing a certain amount of service for free as long as the emergency lasts. For others for whom they can’t provide service, they have set up WiFi hotspots in areas where students can come to download or upload their work.

“It’s about getting these kids connected so that they can get back to school and not lose an entire year,” Arndorfer said.

“By no means do we want to encourage a bunch of local gathering, but if someone needed some connectivity they could pull up in their car and do some work and perhaps connect to one of those,” VanDewater said.

Carie Marshall Moore and her family typically rely on her smartphone’s WiFi hotspot for most of their home internet needs, and sometimes they’ll drive somewhere with WiFi — nearly 20 miles from their rural home.

Moore’s daughter is a seventh grader at North Star School in Cando, N.D., and has needed to use systems that take more bandwidth and to participate in live chats with classes. The first day with telelearning was frustrating, Moore said. But by late that afternoon, the school had arranged for an internet hotspot from the local provider to be placed at their house. They’ll get to keep it until June 1.

“We’re using it as much as we can,” she said.

Arndorfer encourages anyone in rural North Dakota to reach out to their schools or service providers for assistance.

“We will work with you to get you connected in some way shape or form,” he said.

VanDewater said SDN has worked with businesses to increase bandwidth to prepare for more employees working from home, and businesses have worked with their employees to make sure their internet connection is sufficient to continue doing their jobs.

“It’s a pretty big shift for businesses,” he said.