The N.C. Department of Natural and Cultural Resources is leveraging resources at state parks, historic sites and other community hubs to expand internet access and bolster remote learning opportunities for students across North Carolina. The “Park and Learn” project, part of a broader effort called NC Student Connect, aims to provide free high-speed WiFi access to students in rural communities.
NC Student Connect was created this year to improve internet connectivity and fill gaps that are a barrier to remote learning. The project is a partnership of state agencies, including the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources, Hometown Strong, the Department of Information Technology, the Governor’s Education Advisor and the NC Business Committee for Education, to rapidly connect students with remote learning.
“Expanding student access to the internet has become a priority as school systems across the state have adopted remote learning policies in response to the Covid-19 pandemic,” said Susi H. Hamilton, secretary of the N.C. Department of Natural and Cultural Resources. “Our state parks, historic sites and local libraries are locations that provide a safe and secure space for students to access the internet for remote learning. Partnering with Hometown Strong on this project to bring internet access to our students in rural North Carolina is one of the most important initiatives we have undertaken together.”
The Park and Learn project has installed WiFi hotspots at more than 200 sites across the state. When completed, it will bring WiFi access to more than 350 locations, including state parks and historic sites, along with libraries and schools. In addition, the N.C. Department of Natural and Cultural Resources has purchased more than 84,000 hotspots and distributed them to about 200 school systems or charter schools.
“When school resumed in August, school superintendents around the state estimated that at least 100,000 students still lacked a reliable internet connection at home,” said Mary Penny Kelley, executive director of Hometown Strong. “Based on county visits we made pre-pandemic, we knew we had to connect more rural students to succeed at remote learning in these challenging times, and this initiative is a great example of folks working together toward that goal.”
Park and Learn is being funded by a federal CARES act grant that expires Dec. 30. The NC Student Connect initiative will use $6.1 million to provide internet access where it is most needed. The project is expected to reach as many as 82 state-owned sites and approximately 335 community sites when complete.
Visit https://hometownstrong.nc.gov/tools/remote-learning to learn more about NC Student Connect and find a map of WiFi locations.