Schools solved internet issues for students during the pandemic. The long-term solutions are trickier.

Some students work in the Harrisonburg High School “access center,” which allows for consistent internet and a more structured environment during the pandemic. (File photo)

By Chase Downey, contributor

As schools were forced to close during the beginning stages of the pandemic two years ago, Harrisonburg City Public Schools encountered a problem: 1,224 students with insufficient internet access.

Superintendent Michael Richards said the schools surveyed student households to determine that number, which is about 20% of the total student body. To address the problem when classes moved online during those early months of the pandemic,  the city schools invested “a significant amount of federal aid.”

First, the district created “mega hotspots” using devices from wireless company Kajeet that were placed in vehicles loaned from the city. Those vehicles drove to neighborhoods with high concentrations of students who lacked stable internet access. In areas where it was not possible to deploy vehicles, the school district also bought modems for families to use. 

“So we kept all our families connected,” Richards said.

The situation was similar in Rockingham County Public Schools, which identified between 1,300 and 1,400 students without high-speed internet access, which works out to around 12% of student households. 

These problems, though, grew from different roots. Rockingham County is more rural and houses are spread out, so many internet connectivity problems stem from a lack of broadband infrastructure. 

“Here in Harrisonburg that’s not the case. Anywhere you may live in the city of Harrisonburg you can choose between Comcast or Glo Fiber,” said Ande Banks, Harrisonburg’s interim city manager. 

For households in the city, the main challenge is households struggling to afford the cost. So the answers to connecting all these homes with school-aged children aren’t simple or easy. 

Rockingham County Public Schools acquired and deployed about 1,300 hotspots early in the pandemic to provide to student households. The district used emergency funding to pay for them. And for students who were unable to use the hotspot connections, the district bused them into schools to use the internet there. 

“We still had situations there where we bused kids into school,” said Kevin Perkins, RCPS technology director. “There are still parts of this area where a hot spot won’t get you internet… if you don’t have a good 4G signal from a cellphone tower somewhere nearby, you still won’t have high speed internet.”

Banks said federal funding has mostly been out of the question for helping Harrisonburg residents because most of those programs in the last 10 years have been focused on unserved and underserved areas around the country, such as rural areas.

Even the $1.9 trillion American Recovery Plan Act that Congress passed in 2021 to provide stimulus funds to states and communities won’t help in this instance, even though it will send millions of dollars to the city.   

“If we go back to the ARPA, it is very specific, it wouldn’t be eligible for use in Harrisonburg,” Banks said. “It specifies that you have to have a lack of available broadband internet access down to the speed of downloads, and between Comcast and Glo Fiber we surpass those base levels before you can start spending ARPA dollars for broadband.”

One form of relief available is the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP), which in December 2021 replaced the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program. The ACP allows eligible households to take up to $30 off their internet bill each month, and is available for both Comcast and Glo Fiber customers. 

As for how many residents need this kind of aid, the city officials aren’t sure.  

“We don’t know how broad the challenge is,” Banks said. “This was a much more timely issue when we had 6,000 students out of school. We need some data to see — is this really an issue…The only tool in our toolbag is to expand incentives for private corporations to expand service or incentivize service.”

Banks said the data from the school district survey wasn’t shared with the city. 

“[It was] new to me that there are surveys that the schools have conducted,” Banks said. 

Banks also said the city has no plans to expand the service provided to the city schools with mega hotspots. 

“We don’t necessarily have any plans to expand that at this time, and we’d have certain challenges to expand that. Virginia law is very specific about the municipality getting involved in telecommunications,” Banks said.

In terms of the possibility of connectivity continuing to be an issue with HCPS, Banks said the city would need to survey student populations and families to find out what specific challenges they might face and determine which neighborhoods have low internet connectivity. 

After surveying, Banks said the city would attempt to meet with corporate partners and negotiate to remediate fiscal challenges, but ultimately the school district must come to the city with issues that need to be solved. 

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