On March 13, school districts across South Dakota went remote to slow the spread of COVID-19. Instantly, Wessington Springs (S.D.) Superintendent Pandi Pittman was helping 63 staff and the families of 265 students navigate learning from home.
“It was a very shocking situation. You’re sitting there thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m alone,’” Pittman recalled. “I was making moment-by-moment decisions. I had no idea if I was doing the right thing. It was nice to have resources suddenly step in to help.”
Local communications cooperatives were among the resources Pittman says played a vital role in ensuring Wessington Springs students were able to continue learning. Right away, Santel Communications Cooperative Inc. and Venture Communications Cooperative reached out to Pittman offering to connect students without internet to their broadband services.
“We have this fiber-to-the-home network that has a limitless supply of bandwidth, and because that is what educators needed to continue teaching, we saw no reason not to make it available to students,” explained Randy Houdek, general manager of Venture Communications Cooperative.
“These are the families and kids we are trying to empower to larger and bigger opportunities — even more so when times get tough and families are up against a unique challenge like this,” added Ryan Thompson, general manager of Santel Communications Cooperative Inc.
Partnering with Wessington Springs Schools and other schools throughout their coverage area, the cooperatives ensured every student was connected.
In some cases, this was as simple as turning on services to their homes. In other situations, getting broadband to a student’s home was not quite so simple.
“It was a neat experience how our employees brainstormed and developed ingenious processes to get amazing stuff done, yet remain socially distanced,” Houdek said.
Houdek explained that, due to the time of year, digging in lines was not an option. So, crews would find the nearest point to connect. They would lay wire across the top of the ground to a home’s window. “Then we would ask the customer to open the window and slide the fiber through. Our team would then place the other necessary equipment on their front step and walk them through the connection and activation process.”
Pittman says the speed at which the cooperatives connected students was impressive and meaningful. “Because they are our local cooperatives, they know us personally,” she said. “Their employees had kids going through this. They know our teachers and staff.”
And, like all South Dakotans, the COVID-19 pandemic changed how cooperative employees worked as well. Pam Kopfmann, customer service manager for Santel, explains that all employees who had jobs that allowed them to, began working from home.
“We felt like we were all in this together,” she said. “In the Midwest, we are all neighbors and neighbors help each other out.”
Serving their communities aligns with the cooperative mission.
“As a cooperative, we are owned by our members and the communities we serve,” Thompson explained.
“We are all about community,” Hodek added. “We want to be part of our community. When our schools suffer, the community suffers and by extension we suffer. Keeping our small towns and schools healthy and vibrant serves all of us.”
In addition to providing internet to students free of charge, throughout the first few months of the COVID-19 pandemic, the cooperatives did not turn off services to any patrons who were unwilling or unable to pay.
“Our board was willing to allow us to align with the FCC’s Keep America Connected Pledge, even though this was likely going to result in some uncollectible bills,” Houdek said. “As a cooperative, our mission is to serve our members, not necessarily watch the bottom line.”
In the end, Houdek said that with the help of payment plans, most patrons did continue to pay for their connectivity. “This just speaks to the honesty of South Dakotans.”