A special education teacher at Vine Street School in Bangor, smiles when she sees the face of one of her students on the computer screen during a Zoom meeting Friday. Gov. Janet Mills is directing CARES Act funding toward installing high-speed broadband internet across the state. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

More than 730 students across rural Maine will get access to high-speed broadband internet after Gov. Janet Mills awarded $5.6 million in CARES Act funding to a new initiative to update internet infrastructure throughout Maine.

The funds will go toward the “ConnectKidsNow!” initiative, a public-private partnership by the governor’s office to bring reliable internet to rural areas across the state, Mills’ press secretary Lindsay Crete said Friday.

Students helped by the initiative will include those in Appleton, Bath, Berwick, Bethel, Bristol, Buckfield, Canaan, East Machias, Hope, Houlton, Kittery, Lincolnville, Sumner, Whiting and Woolwich.

About 80 percent of Maine households have a broadcast internet subscription, 0.4 percent lower than the U.S. average, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2014-18 American Community Survey. The number is especially low in rural counties such as Piscataquis (about 67 percent) and Aroostook (69 percent).

Maine schools have increasingly brought learning remote and online in their efforts to reduce the risk of COVID-19 spread in schools, a practice becoming increasingly common as cases rise across Maine.

Several Maine schools have transitioned to hybrid-learning models where a segment of students is in the classroom and another learns at home. Others have gone fully remote or are preparing to do so if needed.

However, many people in Maine’s rural areas remain without strong internet, especially in locations far from town centers. Poor internet connection can create difficulties learning in the classroom, as well as in utilizing other methods of communicating between students and teachers such as video chats.

Mills’ office said it had worked to identify where students are not sufficiently connected across the state and collaborated with internet service providers, who will build new internet infrastructure by the end of the year, Crete said.

Expanding broadband access across Maine had been a priority of Mills long before the COVID-19 pandemic — she called for a $15 million broadband bond during her State of the State address in January.

“Internet access is no longer a luxury, it is a necessity,” Mills said. “And no child in Maine should be left out of the classroom because they can’t get online.”

Some of the internet service providers involved in the initiative include Lincolnville Communications Inc. (awarded $2.2 million), RedZone Wireless (awarded $1.7 million), Axiom (awarded $1.5 million) and Pioneer Broadband (awarded $52,000).