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Virginia educators try to fill void of digital divide as schools prepare to reopen
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Virginia educators try to fill void of digital divide as schools prepare to reopen

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Three-tenths of a mile.

That’s how far the Harless family is from reliable broadband in northern Roanoke County.

"Comcast runs, I think, the first 10 or 15 houses down the road," Bobby Harless said. "And then after that, it's nothing."

Harless lives near Hanging Rock, one of the pockets in Roanoke County where portions of residents report poor broadband access. Harless counts himself lucky to have access through provider All Points Broadband, but it’s expensive and slow, he said.

"We’re really on the very edge of getting service," he said.

His family has made due since March, when the COVID-19 pandemic suddenly meant both Harless, a software engineer, and his wife, Courtney, a Roanoke County teacher, had to work from home. Their daughter was a kindergartner at Masons Cove Elementary, and they had to rely on paper packets because their internet was too slow to handle the school's online learning platform.

But now with school starting later this month — and Courtney Harless needing to provide virtual instruction to students — the family is concerned their internet will not be up to the tasks at hand.

Reliable high-speed broadband is a problem that persists across Virginia, from the southwestern mountains to the Middle Peninsula. Nearly 1 in 3 residents of rural Virginia do not have access to high-speed internet, defined by the Federal Communications Commission as at least 25 megabits per second download and 3 megabits per second upload, according to a 2019 Commonwealth Connect report on Gov. Ralph Northam’s universal broadband initiative. Tens of thousands of urban residents don’t have high-speed broadband, either, largely due to affordability.

The issue has been exacerbated and forced into the spotlight during the pandemic, and it has caused special concern among educators. Schools transitioned to a haphazard combination of online learning and paper packets when classrooms closed in March. Many localities and regions have broadband authorities to expand access, and Northam has made it a priority. But those are long-term solutions, expensive and time-consuming. Students need access now. School officials have spent the summer puzzling out not only how to reopen schools for the 2020–21 school year but how to reach students who will engage in virtual instruction, a key part of most divisions’ back-to-school plans.

"There's often an expectation that the schools should provide the internet access, but we're not capable of providing broadband access to a population," said Halifax County Public Schools Superintendent Mark Lineburg, who estimates 45% of the division’s nearly 5,000 students don’t have reliable access.

Innovation on the go

Bristol Virginia Public Schools Superintendent Keith Perrigan leads the Coalition of Small and Rural Schools of Virginia, a group of nearly 80 of the state's 132 divisions that first banded together in 2017 to advocate for issues of mutual concern, such as teacher retention and enrollment loss.

Broadband is now at the top of that list.

"I don't know that there's an immediate solution," Perrigan said. "I do think that this will start a conversation that will cause long-range things to happen, but I've yet to hear a good short-term solution for how communities are going to do this."

Bristol Virginia Public Schools acquired hot spots for students and worked with local internet providers to provide high-speed access to the 100 students in need, Perrigan said, which is about 5% of Bristol’s student body.

"Just because you have internet in a community don't mean that it's sufficient for remote learning," he said.

In lieu of permanent solutions, coalition member Louisa County Public Schools got creative. When students there go back to school Thursday, (Aug. 13) building trades and technology students will begin work on 10 solar hot spot units designed to provide community access points.

The school division already has deployed 22 Wireless on Wheels units throughout the county since April, and another 10 will boost the division's ability to provide high-speed access as classes start. The rural school division, located in the center of the state, has approximately 5,000 students, about half of whom don’t have reliable access, Superintendent Doug Straley estimated.

"It's not the cure-all. But it certainly is a great solution for a community that doesn't have a lot of options," Straley said. "It won't be a situation where [students] can't do [virtual] because they don't have internet."

The innovation is a product of division Director of Technology David Childress and Director of CTE-STEAM and Innovation Kenneth Bouwens.

They’ve built two versions: cellular and satellite, the latter of which provides connectivity to the parts of the county without cell service, Childress said. The mobile units are positioned throughout the community in places like shopping center parking lots. Students can download their work and take it home to do offline. When the fall semester starts, the school division plans to provide transportation to the units, Straley said.

The idea has become so popular that Childress has fielded requests from other school divisions that want to build their own. A website,, provides a how-to guide and list of parts, which total less than $3,000.

Campbell County Public Schools' Superintendent Robert Johnson said the division is also in the process of equipping buses with Wi-Fi hot spots and plans to have them travel to remote locations for students who may not have reliable internet access. Johnson also said the division is working to extend building Wi-Fi into parking lots so that families can drive up and access the internet from school parking lots.

Chuck Yarbrough, supervisor of instructional technology in Lynchburg City Schools, said Wi-Fi will be available in the parking lots of 19 school buildings and six community recreation centers.

Hot spots have been installed in every school building, and the division will equip every student with a Chromebook so they can download materials at school without needing to connect at home. The division also may use other ideas as it finalizes its plans, and Lineburg pledged to "find whatever method it takes" to educate students.

"The one thing I know that we have is we have great teachers, and our teachers will pull this off," Lineburg said. "And that's really the key to it."

Broadband’s ripple effects

Middlesex County Public Schools Superintendent Pete Gretz worries "the divide between the haves and the have nots is becoming more delineated" without a broadband expansion solution, which the Middlesex Broadband Authority is working on.

"As broadband becomes more of not just an expectation but just a common avenue of delivering essential services to people ... it's becoming more of a problem," he said.

A long, thin, rural county on the Middle Peninsula bounded by the Rappahannock and Piankatank rivers and Chesapeake Bay, Middlesex County has a small population of approximately 10,500 residents. The waterfront location draws a wealthy demographic of retirees and vacationers, Gretz said. But the interior of the county tells a different story; over half of the 1,200 students qualify for free/reduced lunch, according to Virginia Department of Education data.

Over 30% of families in the school system don’t have access to the internet, a combination of location and affordability, Gretz said. U.S. Route 17 and Virginia State Route 33 run the length of Middlesex County, splitting it in half. There's not much incentive for internet providers to run service down the side roads that form offshoots from the highway unless families are willing to pay thousands for service to be installed, Gretz said.

He also worries about the indirect effects from a lack of broadband when it comes to "making this a desirable place for people to move so that we can continue to grow and continue to sustain ourselves."

The county largely relies on property taxes for revenue. Its infrastructure can’t support large-scale economic development; there are Middlesex residents at the eastern tip of the county who don’t have clean water, Gretz said.

Looking toward the future

That problem is one Harless and his neighbors face in Roanoke County. Though Harless has access — albeit only 15 megabits for $80 per month — others rely on their phone as a hot spot, if they can.

Harless previously inquired with Comcast about getting the company to bridge the .3-mile gap to his house. They could do it — for $30,000, he said. He could split the bill with nearby neighbors, but that would still shake out to thousands per household.

"It’s just too much. People don’t want to pay that," Harless said.

"The county or somebody has to fund [broadband expansion], or the state has to fund this in order to get it done, and it just hasn't happened," he added.

The exact number of Virginians without reliable broadband access is unknown. There are estimates, like the figures provided in Northam's 2019 report, but service maps are widely seen as misleading because the FCC until this year allowed internet service providers to list a census block as fully covered if at least one address used service.

Localities with broadband authorities have completed their own surveys to provide a more accurate picture; Roanoke County, for example, estimates 20% of residents are unserved and 13% are underserved, meaning they have internet access but not download speeds equivalent to broadband. The county recently solicited requests for proposals to expand broadband in rural areas, and contributed $133,000 of its Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act funds toward the purchase of 685 hot spots for students, which cost approximately $575,300 with a two-year service agreement.

Though schools are shouldering the burden to provide short-term solutions to students, educators are looking for providers and government to expand access long term.

National Rural Education Association Executive Director Allen Pratt said broadband should be a utility.

"I don't think districts should be in the business of being broadband or internet providers," Pratt said.

The government is "gonna have to really open the door to allow this fix to happen and not really be a Band-Aid fix," Pratt said.  

Hot spotting solutions

On a recent Friday afternoon in the fluorescent-lit gym of Fort Lewis Elementary School in Roanoke County, staff handed out laptops and a handful of hot spots as students trickled through the line.

The unique thing about these hot spots is that the cell phone carrier can be swapped out, Director of Information Technology Jeff Terry explained. U.S. Cellular, for example, provides better service than other carriers in the Masons Cove area in northwest Roanoke County. For "extreme cases," the division has acquired a handful of cell extenders to provide a signal boost, Terry said.

Hot spot service for families who qualify for free and reduced lunch, which make up 70% of the 685 who need internet access, will be paid for by the school division.

"Even the hot spots that we're doing doesn't answer the question for everybody because some people are still so remote," Superintendent Ken Nicely acknowledged.

The division also partnered with the county to place cable modems in the Bent Mountain and Catawba community centers to serve two areas notorious for poor service. Schools also have flash drives to load content offline.

The digital divide also extends to device access, and Roanoke County's hallmark program is its one-to-one laptop program, which is in its 18th year, according to Terry. It started with high school students, later expanded to middle school, and this school year will serve elementary-aged students because of the division’s partially-virtual reopening plan.

"I think our ultimate goal, this year especially, is to have that laptop work exactly as it would here [at school]," Terry said, to make virtual learning work smoothly.

In Lynchburg City Schools, Yarbrough said the division will provide Internet-accessible devices for each student in grades three through 12. Campbell County Public Schools plans to achieve a 1-to-1 ratio of devices to students by the time school starts back early next month. Officials in Campbell County Public Schools said students in grades kindergarten through second grades will receive iPads, with older students receiving laptops to aid in remote learning.

Hot spots are Brunswick County's answer, which the county is funding through a portion of its CARES Act funds. A semester of service shakes out to be about $235,000, and the county provided $300,000, Somerville-Midgette said. Families who have picked up devices have expressed thanks to the school system, she said.

But CARES funding won't last forever. She worries about small, rural communities like Brunswick getting left behind if access stays limited.

"I don't think everything can be left to the locality," she said. "We don't have the funding or the resources to make it happen.

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