Culpeper Star-Exponent: Spanberger leads colleagues to push for WiFi hotspots for students

CULPEPER STAR-EXPONENT, CLINT SCHEMMER

To help students access the internet in rural communities such as Culpeper County, U.S. Rep. Abigail Spanberger is leading colleagues to urge the House and Senate’s top foursome to enhance next coronavirus stimulus packages with money for WiFi hotspots.

Spanberger wrote both parties’ leaders—House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer—to advocate an additional $2 billion to help schools and libraries serve more students. Forty-eight other House members signed her letter. It went out Wednesday.

The additional money would go to the Federal Communications Commission’s E-Rate program, established in 1997 to help schools and libraries gain affordable online access through discounts of 20 to 90 percent on telecommunications and internet gear.

Spanberger is asking the “Four Corners” leaders to help the millions of students without adequate internet connectivity in their homes during the coronavirus pandemic.

“The success of our students and the opportunities afforded to them should not be based on where they live,” Spanberger and her colleagues wrote. “It is especially important that during a time of public health crisis, we take steps to ensure that all students can learn from home and that parents do not feel pressured to expose their children to contagions so that they can access public Wi-Fi to complete their schoolwork.”

The House members acknowledged that permanently bridging this digital divide will take more time and broad investments in infrastructure, but said Congress should act now to help students beset by the pandemic.

“The current public health crisis threatens to further exacerbate these historic inequities as more and more schools move to e-learning as a way of providing supplemental education even as nearly 12 million students nationwide lack reliable home access to broadband connectivity,” the lawmakers told McConnell, Schumer, Pelosi and McCarthy. “… the current pandemic may result in these same students being unable to continue their education at all.”

With COVID-19 concerns having closed public and private schools in Virginia and across the country, rural students either cannot or have difficulty accessing video streams, video conferences, and online-based learning programs due to the lack of reliable, broadband internet.

Only 53 percent of U.S. students in small towns or rural areas have access to high-speed internet, compared to 77 percent of suburban students, according to the Benton Institute for Broadband and Society.

In an interview from her home office in Henrico County, Spanberger said school superintendents and School Board members in 7th Congressional District localities recently urged her to act to help students who are cut off from learning opportunities that their peers can access.

“If there is immediate money to provide WiFi hotspots, this could be a pretty quick turnaround, an approach that would work for the remainder of the shutdown, and afterward,” she said.

Given that the rate of COVID-19 infections is cyclical and can rise and fall after the state of national emergency is lifted, the nation must plan for a second-wave resurgence, Spanberger said.

Made worse by the pandemic and state closures in effect until June 10, what educators call the “homework gap” with internet access is a major issue for many Central Virginia families, but is just part of a national problem in hundreds of rural communities, she said.

The lack of rural broadband also affects local businesses and military veterans who can’t access telehealth services that can resolve health issues without difficult trips to a VA hospital or clinic, Spanberger said.

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