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Fredericksburg-area school divisions working to ensure all students have high-speed internet access
OPENING THE VIRTUAL CLASSROOM TO ALL

Fredericksburg-area school divisions working to ensure all students have high-speed internet access

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Kevin Grego lives in King George County and teaches high school in Charles County, Md.

When he needs to attend a virtual department meeting or upload a lesson, he drives down the road to his church’s parking lot, where he can access Wi-Fi. The Verizon hotspot he uses for internet access at home doesn’t support that kind of activity.

Grego said he doesn’t mind doing this for his own work, but he minds it for his 6-year-old son, who is going into the first grade at King George Elementary.

“In this area of King George, we’re one of many what they call ‘last-mile customers,’ ” he said. “The major corporations don’t see economic gain [in getting us connected].”

Grego said Atlantic Broadband, the only major internet provider in King George, quoted him $50,000 to run internet to his home. The Gregos also tried satellite internet, which didn’t work well, and a Verizon hub with 10 gigabytes, which was almost useless after the 10 gigabytes were exceeded.

They have now exhausted all their options, Grego said.

“I want to make sure my child has the necessary resources to be successful in school, and my hands are tied right now,” he said.

Thousands of students in the Fredericksburg area do not have internet access at all, or have access to internet that is not fast enough to support live streaming, an essential component of synchronous online learning that most school systems are using for at least the start of the school year.

Getting them access is “probably the most important work we’ve done,” said Jay Cooke, executive director of technology with Stafford County Public Schools.

Fredericksburg City Public Schools has the highest estimated percentage of students with no internet access at all—about 13 percent, or an estimated 500 students out of 3,750.

“Our concern now is that number may start to grow as people are being furloughed or become unemployed and providers are turning off delinquent subscribers,” said Michael George, chief operations officer for city schools.

He said the number of families reporting that they have no internet access has increased slightly since the pandemic began in March. Most of those families are located in apartment complexes scattered around the city, such as Wellington Woods off Lafayette Boulevard, Forest Village off Fall Hill Avenue and Hazel Hill Apartments downtown, as well as in the neighborhoods of Mayfield and Bragg Hill, George said.

Stafford and Spotsylvania counties have lower percentages of students who lack connectivity—between 3 and 5 percent. Both school divisions said a better picture depends on getting more responses to surveys sent out to determine internet needs.

“Over half of parents responded, but I think it’s the ones that don’t have internet access that are the ones that aren’t responding,” Cooke said.

He estimates between 1,000 and 1,500 students out of 30,000 in Stafford have slow or no internet.

“Our estimate is based on some other factors,” he said. “Back in March and April, we had a pretty big push—teachers and principals were calling families and we were trying every way we could to find out whether people had internet service or not.”

Cooke said families without internet access are concentrated on the far eastern and western edges of the county or match up with those who get free and reduced-price lunches.

“It’s infrastructure and then the ability of families to pay for internet service,” he said. “Those are the two big things.”

In Spotsylvania, a little over 4 percent of families who responded to a school division survey about internet access indicated that they either have no internet or have limited, dial-up access.

Superintendent Scott Baker said about 19,000 families returned the survey and an additional 5,000 are needed to give a full picture of the need.

“We do expect that number [of families without internet] to go up,” he said.

Baker said the division’s estimate is that the majority of connectivity issues have to do with lack of infrastructure rather than lack of means.

“Especially in some of our rural areas, including Berkeley and the western part of the county, there may be no service,” he said.

In Caroline County, about 9 percent of the school division’s 4,300 students have no internet access at all and another 11 percent use satellite or DSL to access the internet, making it difficult for them to participate in live virtual instruction. Nearly all families responded to a survey to determine their internet needs, division technology supervisor Charlie Bowman said.

King George County technology supervisor Dan Hopper said survey results, which reflect most of the student population, show 8 percent of county students have no access and almost 18 percent have slow internet that doesn’t support live streaming.

In Orange County, school division technology supervisor Mark Outten estimates that possibly 40 percent of the student population is without high-speed internet, but the division’s reopening plan calls for students to be in school buildings at least one and possibly two days per week, which will mitigate the problem somewhat.

Divisions have different plans to address internet needs, many supported by funding from the CARES act.

Fredericksburg is installing 12 solar-powered mobile Wi-Fi hotspots in areas of the city where there is a high density of families with internet needs. Each hotspot is made from 160-watt solar panels that feed a battery box that powers a modem.

T-Mobile provides the internet service from the hotspots, which can run for two weeks without sun on a fully-charged battery, George said. The internet speed is about 40 Mbps and the signal reaches about 450 feet in each direction, provided there are no buildings in the way, he said.

The solar-powered hotspots are or will be placed at Bragg Hill, the Commons at Central Park, Crestview, Forest Village, Hazel Hill, Heritage Park, Mayfield, Riverside Manor, Townsend, Wellington Woods and Weston Apartments.

George said the hotspots cost about $1,300 each. The division is using some of its $869,035 in CARES Act funding to pay for them.

The division has also installed Wi-Fi in each school parking lot, will be outfitting each enrolled child with either an iPad or a computer and is calling every family that did not respond to a survey about internet needs, George said.

“We’re trying to make 100 percent contact at this point just to figure out the situation and where we need to be,” he said. “We don’t want any student to be behind.”

Because so many students may have difficulty accessing reliable high-speed internet, the city school division has chosen to make all grade-based learning asynchronous, which means instruction and learning do not take place at the same time and location, as they usually do in school.

“So students can download everything need for the next day or the next week at one time,” he said. “There will be synchronous activities, but they won’t be related to academics, more for social-emotional learning. We don’t want to tie grades to something the student may or may not be able to participate in.”

In addition, George said the school division applied on June 8 to the Federal Communications Commission for a license to broadcast internet from school buildings for a temporary period, but T-Mobile is opposing the request.

Here’s where other area school systems stand on broadband access:

STAFFORD

Cooke, the system’s technology director, said the school division has issued 400 Verizon and AT&T Wi-Fi hotspots, which were just upgraded to an unlimited data plan using some of the $1.5 million in CARES Act funding the system received. Public Wi-Fi is available in all school parking lots and Cooke said Cox Cable is working on installing some community Wi-Fi hotspots around the county.

Cooke said the division is also starting to work out the logistics of offering an “internet cafe” for students without reliable internet access. Students taking this option would be transported via school bus to one of the division buildings for a few hours during the week, where they would have access to a computer for downloading assignments, watching required videos or completing other necessary work.

Cooke said he feels supported in efforts to get students online by the local Board of Supervisors, which this summer approved the purchase of 9,000 Chromebooks for the school division at a cost of about $1.1 million. But he said solving the digital divide for good is going to take more support from the state and federal government, companies and internet service providers.

Cooke said many service providers he’s spoken to about student internet access “don’t get it.”

“They don’t understand that this is a problem,” he said. “Most of them offer some kind of low-income plan, but there’s a lot of paperwork that goes with that.

“If you have people working two jobs or speaking a different language or whatever the problem is, they just don’t get around to doing it. They get tired and frustrated. There are so many barriers in the way of these families and that’s if the infrastructure exists.”

SPOTSYLVANIA

Spotsylvania has Wi-Fi hotspots at 10 county schools—Courtland, Cedar Forest, Harrison Road, Wilderness, Berkeley and Livingston elementary schools; Spotsylvania Middle School; and Spotsylvania, Massaponax and Riverbend high schools.

The division will also be placing 11 solar-powered mobile hotspots throughout the community, Superintendent Baker said, and the division also plans to purchase 900 more mobile hotspots, which will be delivered to schools for distribution to students who need them.

Spotsylvania has been allocated almost $2.4 million in CARES Act funding, more than other local divisions. CARES Act funding is allocated based on the division’s share of federal Title I funds, which are given to schools with high numbers or high percentages of children from low-income families.

Baker said school buildings may also be used as hubs for internet access.

He said that when school starts Monday, the division will have a better understanding of what student needs are.

“We are going to find out every single family and student’s need,” he said.

CAROLINE

Caroline County Public Schools is also planning to utilize a combination of mobile hotspots and an in-school internet cafe for students without reliable internet access. Superintendent Sarah Calveric said the division will distribute hotspots to areas of the county that are in close proximity to cell phone towers.

Bowman said the division is purchasing 650 T-Mobile hotspots at a cost of $20 per month for a 12-month contract. They will be funded by the CARES Act. Caroline is allocated to receive about $740,000 in CARES Act funding.

If students do not live close enough to a cell tower for the hotspot to be a viable solution, they will have the option to come into school buildings four days a week to work in computer hubs.

“They will still be getting virtual instruction,” Calveric said. “They will just be getting it in the school setting so they have access to internet. And they’ll be receiving transportation and food service, as well as a whole host of safety measures being implemented.”

Calveric said the challenges posed by the pandemic can allow school divisions to “grow their skills and the depth of their toolboxes.”

“We will not return to normal—we will return to better,” she said.

She said “appropriate funding” is necessary to support ensuring that all students have the technology and access they need, both in the short- and long-term.

“I do believe that federally, as well as at the state and local level, [we have to have] continued dialogue and open communication,” Calveric said. “For example, broadband throughout Caroline is a substantial need and one we will be championing.”

KING GEORGE

King George County Public Schools is joining a contract between Verizon and the Georgia Department of Education, which is open to schools in 10 states and allows the division to purchase mobile hotspots with unlimited 4G internet access.

King George has been allocated $331,000 in CARES Act funding, which Hopper said has paid for 500 hotspots so far.

“Five hundred and eleven people have requested them, though, so we’re going to have to get some more,” he said earlier this month.

Hopper said Atlantic Broadband has five Wi-Fi hotspots in the county that are open to the public. He said the school division is also publishing a website that lists places in the county with free internet.

“And we’re asking companies that are open to letting folks use their internet to let us know and we’ll put them on the list, too,” he said.

Hopper said Verizon has the best service in King George and other providers “don’t have much at all.”

He said local and state initiatives to provide internet access—such as the Virginia Telecommunications Initiative, which extends broadband service to underserved areas—are helpful, but that more needs to be done, especially now that pandemic quarantines have the potential to leave people in rural areas more isolated.

“It’s the federal government that needs to do something,” Hopper said. “They need to go back to the Rural Electrification Act of 1936 [which provided federal loans for the installation of electrical distribution systems in rural areas] and do the same thing, and make [internet] a utility. That would be great.”

Adele Uphaus–Conner: 540/735-1973

auphaus@freelancestar.com

@flsadele

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