Culpeper Star-Exponent: Spanberger urges more broadband for stay-at-home students

CULPEPER STAR-EXPONENT, CLINT SCHEMMER

U.S. Rep. Abigail Spanberger is calling for stronger federal guidance to students, parents, and educators in rural areas as schools close in response to the coronavirus.

Students in Central Virginia who lack high-speed internet access face challenges in doing and completing online assignments, Spanberger’s office said Tuesday. Since taking office in January 2019, the 7th District lawmaker has been working to improve broadband in her 10-county region.

Central Virginia parents and educators have expressed concern for students without such reliable access to the world wide web.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that if schools are dismissed, educators consider implementing e-learning programs to fill gaps in students’ education, Spanberger’s office said.

In a letter to the House Appropriations Committee, Spanberger led 30 of her colleagues in pressing the U.S. Department of Education to plan how to help local schools better mitigate that problem.

Spanberger and U.S. Rep. Stacy Plaskett, D-USVI, were the letter’s leaders.

They asked House appropriators to include language in fiscal 2021 appropriations legislation requiring the government to report on how extended closings caused by public health crises, such as the coronavirus, affect students.

“Student success should not be determined by ZIP code, and at a time when schools need to be focusing on keeping their children safe, families shouldn’t be forced to worry about how their children will be able to keep up with their peers because of a lack of access to broadband,” said Spanberger and her colleagues.

“The coronavirus pandemic has forced schools across Central Virginia to take necessary precautions to protect our students, teachers, and staff. And as our hardworking teachers are working to develop new lesson plans, many of our students face connectivity challenges at home that can make it difficult to keep up with these online assignments—at no fault of their own,” Dr. Eric L. Jones, superintendent of Powhatan County Public Schools, said in a statement. “Additional guidance on best practices for dealing with a lack of reliable internet access would be greatly appreciated …”

Jenna Alexander, the Virginia PTA’s vice president of advocacy, said PTA members are concerned about infrastructure inequities in the state’s school systems.

“The coronavirus perfectly highlights the digital divide that already exists for many students and their families,” Alexander said, thanking Spanberger for her leadership on the matter.

Spanberger’s language would require the Education Department to coordinate with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, CDC and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to analyze broadband connectivity gaps’ effect on schools’ abilities to implement alternative education plans. The legislation would also require the Education Department to plan how to lessen such impacts in the future.

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