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Closing the internet gap for students

Published: Aug. 17, 2020 at 4:22 PM EDT|Updated: Aug. 17, 2020 at 6:15 PM EDT
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ROANOKE, Va. (WDBJ) - In order to learn virtually, all students need laptops and internet access, but not every family can access the internet and many can’t afford it.

“We’re really trying hard to remove as many barriers to instruction as we can,” said Chuck Lionberger, spokesperson for Roanoke County Schools.

One of those barriers is the availability of broadband.

In Roanoke County and Roanoke City, school leaders are working with internet providers including Cox Communications and Comcast to offer discounts on internet service for families that can’t pay for it.

“Yes, we’ve had quite a few parents contact us,” said Jamie McKenna, Roanoke City Instructional Technology Coordinator. “It’s not an overwhelming number, but we do want to make sure our students have access to internet.” The city will check addresses to ensure a student lives at the address where internet is being provided at a discount.

In Roanoke County, some rural areas just don’t have any broadband service available. “So we purchased almost 700 hot spots at a cost of $575,000 approximately,” said Lionberger.

Most school systems are also making wireless internet available in school parking lots for children who don’t have cable or cell service at home. This will allow students the opportunity to download material to work on at home.

Of course, learning at home requires a computer. Most school systems have been distributing laptops to middle and high school students for years. This year elementary students need them as well.

The demand nationwide has caused some delays in delivery of laptops.

In Roanoke City, early planning helped bypass that issue. “We were proactive and began purchasing early,” said McKenna. “We should have enough laptops in by the end of August.”

Highland County’s School Superintendent also said being pro-active put his school system in good shape to ensure every child at every grade level has a laptop.

“That way if the kids are trying to do work at home, they don’t have to wait for their brother or sister to quit playing video games so they can do their homework,” said Highland County School Superintendent Dr. Thomas Schott.

If school districts waited until now to order laptops, “You’re 120 days out to get computers, which is months,” Schott said.

Many school leaders point to the early start to virtual learning in the Spring as one factor that helped them prepare for the return to school online.

“Actually, I feel like it’s going to go really smoothly,” McKenna said.

Many people we spoke with said the early start to virtual learning in the Spring has helped them prepare for the return to school online.

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