No internet access? Virtual schooling highlights digital divide in Virginia


TOANO, Va. (WAVY) — As students in Virginia prepare for a virtual start to the school year, access to the internet is essential. But not every student has a quality internet connection at home.

Officials with Williamsburg-James City County Public Schools estimate 17 percent of their students don’t have any type of access to the internet at home.

One of those families is the Marshalls, who live in rural Toano.

We’ve done previous reports on the Marshalls and their battle to get high speed internet for a reasonable price. Cox Communications quoted $3,500 to run a line to the home. it’s a price tag they can’t afford.

“Don’t have anything that works,” William Marshall said. “Jet packs through Verizon Wireless don’t work, no signal strength.”

With schools going virtual because of the coronavirus, high-speed internet is now essential. William’s son Hunter starts sixth grade Sept. 8.

“I’m trying to give a kid a good education,” Marshall said.

The Marshalls aren’t alone.

According to the 2020 Commonwealth Connect Report, hundreds of thousands of Virginians still lack access to the internet in both rural and urban areas.

Officials with WJCC Public Schools say they’re working on things like buying as many MiFi hotspots as they can.

“They are limited in availability, but we do have a good number on hand,” said Brian Landers, the WJCC director of technology. “We have applied for a grant through Virginia [Department of Education] to get even more.”

The division is getting creative, using multiple avenues to connect students. They’re outfitting vehicles as mobile hotspots to drive to neighborhoods with poor internet. They’re extending WiFi into school parking lots, and partnering with public libraries.

They are also working with Cox for the Connect2Compete program. The program helps families, who have the infrastructure, to connect for a greatly reduced price.

“We believe we’re as prepared as we possibly can be,” Landers said. “Are there going to be hiccups along the way? I’m sure there will be. But we’re ready to identify those and respond to them as quickly as possible.”

Landers says the division is working to identify students who need assistance. The problem is, most families who respond to surveys aren’t the families who need help.

Landers says if you need internet access for your child, the best thing is to call your school directly. Talk to the principal, and let them know you need help.

Division Schedule Fall 2020-2021 (As of August 20, 2020) (Photo courtesy: VDOE)

Education officials on the state level are also working on the digital issue.

“Access to the internet is absolutely going to be essential during this time,” said Dr. James Lane, the superintendent of public schools for VDOE. “What we have found is that the lack of access to the internet, amongst other items, has really shown the inequities in what our students are facing on a day-to-day basis in our schools.”

Gov. Ralph Northam set aside $18 million from the CARES Act for “vision grants.” Schools were able to apply for these grants over the summer. The money can be used for things like buying MiFi hotspots and building internet infrastructure.

At the federal level, Congress is also working on solutions.

“This problem can be solved. All we have to do is pass a couple of bills that are now pending to make sure that every student is connected,” said Congressman Bobby Scott (D-3rd District). “We put in a little extra effort for those that need it, to reduce the achievement gap and not let it get worse.”

Scott said the HEROES Act, currently making its way through the legislature, would provide funding for getting students quality internet connections.

The digital divide has played a role in the achievement gap for years.

Now with virtual schooling, the issue has everyone’s attention and focus, to make sure students like Hunter Marshall don’t get left behind.

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