Keeping kids connected

By Anna Jauhola
In mid-March, Wikstrom Telephone Company promised to keep people connected throughout the coronavirus emergency.
This has been vital as schools have switched to a distance learning platform at least through May 4 and businesses have set up employees to work from home as COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, has spread.
Al Lundeen, Wikstrom plant manager, said the company has worked with all schools within its coverage area to ensure students have adequate coverage and devices.
“Brian Wikstrom is who we put on top of that,” Lundeen said. “He’s making sure they have everything they need.”
As Wikstrom’s has conferred with schools, Lundeen said most teachers are choosing to use internet platforms such as Zoom, Google Classroom or Facebook Live.
“Thankfully this is a pretty good time in the technology world where the teachers have a lot of options,” Lundeen said. “Each of them is picking out what they’re most familiar with and what they want to work with.”
Minnesota schools officially closed on Wednesday, March 18 for eight days to create distance learning plans. On Thursday, March 26, Gov. Tim Walz announced schools would remain closed until May 4.
As the closures continue, students have entered their second week of distance education. To help teachers at Kittson Central, Lancaster and Tri-County schools make this foreign concept a success, Wikstrom contacted the schools immediately to assess their needs, Lundeen said.
In the three school districts in Kittson County, Wikstrom connected a handful of households with the internet that didn’t have it before. They also upgraded internet speed for a few households.
Throughout the company’s coverage area, they connected 30 to 50 people who didn’t have or had inadequate internet, he added. They have also helped get others connected outside their coverage area through their wireless internet option.
“That was the general guidance from our president, Curt Wikstrom,” Lundeen said. “He said that several weeks ago, we need to reconnect people who don’t have service or were disconnected for non-pay or other reasons. We need to make sure they have a phone so they can dial 911 if they need to and have internet for their kids. And we’re prepared to make grants to schools.”
For as long as the COVID-19 emergency lasts, Wikstrom will not disconnect internet customers due to non-payment. Lundeen said they have gifted Chromebooks to students at Karlstad’s Tri-County School, as well as others, who needed them.
“This is an ongoing process of connecting many customers and helping with equipment grants. If a student does not have internet access, they can coordinate that through the associated school and our staff will work to get them connected,” Lundeen said.
Kittson Central Superintendent Bob Jaszczak and Lancaster Superintendent Shannon Hunstad have both said Wikstrom has been “phenomenal” and “amazing” in helping the schools as they transitioned to distance learning.
Wikstrom also complied with direction from the Federal Communications Commission and the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission. Wikstrom doesn’t charge late fees and does not have data caps. And to further comply, they opened up Wiktel wireless locations and will make sure everyone has the ability to work seamlessly through the network.
As Wikstrom helps make sure kids have the means to connect and complete the academic year, the company is also working with other businesses to ensure work-at-home employees are connected. Over the weekend of March 28, Wikstom experienced an influx of 100 calls to the help desk.
“Usually, we get a couple dozen on a weekend, but we had 100,” Lundeen said.
Wikstrom will remain in contact with its customers, especially the schools, to help keep connections solid for work and education throughout the pandemic.

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