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SAN LUIS, Colo. (KDVR) — In the foothills outside of San Luis, 15-year-old Carmelita Rael struggles to get consistent internet access, which is a real problem because the Centennial School District is 100% online due to the pandemic.

“It’s been hard,” Carmelita said.

Like many other homes, the Rael family ranch is miles from town and surrounded by hills.  

“We don’t have access to broadband, or fiber optic, or any of those things. Even our cellphones don’t work when we are here at the ranch,” said Carmelita’s mother, Kimba Rael.  

Kimba is also the school principal. She says her family’s only option is to pay for satellite internet.

“Right now, we have the dish on the side of the house, but if the clouds become too heavy, then you have no access. If the wind is blowing too strong, and its shaking, you don’t have any access,” she said.

When there’s no access, they sometimes load up into the truck and drive to a cemetery at the top of a nearby hill. It has line of sight to cell towers, so Carmelita can use the WiFi hotspot on her phone to access the internet.

The Rael family is not alone in this struggle.

Toby Melster, the superintendent for Centennial School District R-1 says about 20% of his students struggle with consistent internet access, and that’s obviously affecting learning.

“Things are not getting done, and it’s not necessarily their fault,” Melster said.

Melster says cost is one problem.

Thanks to grants his students have devices.  But many still lack connectivity.

He says T-Mobile donated 50 hotspots. Rural Cellphone provider Viaero Wireless donated five more. But some students still can’t connect from home due to terrain and lack of signal.

“I know it’s causing some frustration, and aggravation, anxiety, not only with the students but with our teachers. I can’t say enough about them,” the superintendent said.

Melster is planning to apply for grants to add towers.  He says the scaled down $30,000 to $50,000 plan would add 30-foot towers on top of school buildings.  But, Melster says that won’t help everyone.

“Because we are in the valley, and we are surrounded by the hills and the mountains, we need some that are farther out and up,” he said.

But the other option is pricey.  The superintendent wants to put four to five large towers across the district, but that could cost $1.5 million.

Melster hopes he can work with area providers, the state and community to get consistent internet access for all students.

“My kids need it just as much as anybody else,” Melster said.

In the surrounding areas, Jade Communications staff say they have added at least 100 internet circuits for students in need, using a combination of fiber optics and antennas.

Viaero Wireless is offering discounted programs for districts and students. One is called ConnectEd.

Melster and Rael know there are students across the state with the same issues. They hope a solution can be found for all of them.

“I think everybody deserves to have access, and to have options,” Rael said.