ST. PAUL -- As many Minnesotans are forced to work and learn from home during the coronavirus pandemic, the state Senate on Monday, May 4, unanimously voted to create a $20 million grant program to expand rural broadband access.

Out of a $20 million pot -- most or all of which legislators hope to see covered by federal coronavirus relief dollars -- half will be devoted to building broadband infrastructure to homes and communities that have no access to high speed internet. Another $8 million will go toward distance learning grants for schools, and $2 million toward building telemedicine infrastructure -- particularly in rural hospitals that don't currently have such resources available.

Several senators compared internet access to electricity: what was once a creature comfort is now a necessity, particularly when many in-person workplaces and schools are shut down. Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, said the country's coronavirus crisis has spurred innovation in tele-work, -learn and -medicine capabilities, but also exposed inequities in which communities can access the internet.

Expanding broadband access could inspire a "rural renaissance," lasting beyond the pandemic, she continued.

"We can no longer think that we are serving Minnesota when some parts of Minnesota don’t have broadband access," she said.

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Senate Minority Leader Susan Kent, D-Woodbury, evoked the common educator slang, "the summer slide" -- referring to students who lose educational progress over schools' summer breaks -- and said Minnesota students now face the risk of a "COVID slide." Like with summer slides, Kent said some students could slide further back than others based on existing disparities. Expanding access to broadband can hopefully prevent that, she said.

"We’re also realizing that is not going to be equal across our communities," Kent said. "We know that the disparities, particularly in education, that exist here in the state of Minnesota exist and are being exacerbated. That’s why it’s important we’re doing this."

Kent said there's still more to do beyond this bill to make sure all Minnesota students can learn from home. Even if their home is hooked up to the internet, they may not reliably have a computer to use.

The bill now moves on to the state House for final passage, after which it can be signed by Gov. Tim Walz.