Lesson Plans: Rural schools grapple with COVID
This piece is part of a collaborative reporting project called Lesson Plans: Rural schools grapple with COVID. It includes the Institute for Nonprofit News, Charlottesville Tomorrow, El Paso Matters, Iowa Watch, The Nevada Independent, New Mexico in Depth, Underscore News/Pamplin Media Group and Wisconsin Watch/The Badger Project. The collaboration was made possible by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation.

In the foothills of Virginia, the problem of inadequate internet access has fallen suddenly on rural school divisions to solve.

The lingering coronavirus pandemic has limited in-person learning at schools across the country — and rural America is no exception. But, unlike their urban counterparts, many rural families have no means of accessing the internet in their homes, even if they can afford it.

Broadband service is sporadic in the rural counties that surround Charlottesville. 

“Broadband is a private market,” said Christopher Ali, an associate professor of media studies at the University of Virginia, who is also a Charlottesville Tomorrow board member. “There’s no return on investment in rural areas. It’s too expensive, too spread out, so rural places are just ignored.”

And in some places, the cell service is too weak to support a hotspot, Ali added.

It is an economic, and infrastructure, reality that has left rural school divisions stranded — on their own grasping for ways to reach their students.

“Everybody is struggling, and nobody is answering the question of how to get internet access to children,” said Kenny Bouwens, Louisa County Public Schools’ career and technical education director. “But we know we’ve got to help.”

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Like other rural Virginia school divisions, Louisa has spent a lot of time and money this summer on projects aimed at creating internet access points for their students.

The school division estimates about 40% — or 2,000 — of their 5,000 kids can’t get reliable internet at home, said Doug Straley, superintendent of Louisa County Public Schools.

So after Gov. Ralph Northam ordered Virginia schools to close in March, the division finished out the school year by printing and delivering work packets to every child every two weeks.

“We knew that wasn’t a good plan for the long term,” said Bouwens.

Bouwens and other LCPS teachers and staff began brainstorming possible solutions. 

They had heard of school districts in other states turning their school buses into mobile wireless hotspots and sending them out across their communities. But those were newer buses that came outfitted with wireless, Bouwens said. Louisa’s buses didn’t.

Their next idea was to partner with local businesses around the county to set up free wireless units that students and families could drive to. The school needed the businesses to power the modem.

“Then someone suggested — what if we used solar power?” Bouwens said.

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Students at Louisa County High School's career & technical education class build out their solar powered Wireless on Wheel units Thursday morning.

Credit: Mike Kropf/Charlottesville Tomorrow

The staff all liked the idea, so the school’s technology and shop teachers quickly designed and built a solar-powered wireless device on the back of a trailer and, in April, parked it in a local lot. 

Students flocked to the site.

“The superintendent green-lighted the project,” Bouwens said. “So we made a bulk purchase of all the supplies we’d need and started building them.”

The division has built 23 units that are scattered around the county, and students in its Career & Technical Education class are now working on 10 more. They’re calling them WOW units, for Wireless on Wheels.

“They’re in hot demand,” Bouwens said. “Every time I drive by one, there are several cars parked around it.”

At roughly $2,500 a unit, they’re also expensive. The district has spent more than $80,000 so far just building them.

The district paid for them using money it saved on bus transportation when school was unexpectedly closed in the spring, Straley, the superintendent, said.

They’re not alone there. While the solar-powered Wi-Fi trailers are one of the more unique solutions, Louisa is not the only division ripping their budget apart to pay for their students’ internet access.

Public schools in nearby Greene and Orange counties have both poured thousands of dollars into buying individual hotspot devices for families who lack internet.

“We have 343 square miles of county and approximately 5,000 students,” said Cecil Snead, superintendent of Orange County Public Schools. “So what we did is map out where each of the students live, kind of like a heat map, to see what their access is.”

The division overlaid the map with data from local wireless carriers to see which students were in uncovered areas. At the same time, they surveyed parents to learn about their internet connection.

Based on their research, the division estimates about 12% of their kids don’t have — and can’t easily get to — a reliable broadband connection.

“We’re really concerned about those students,” Snead said.

The fact that so many of their students are essentially unreachable for virtual learning factored heavily into Orange County’s decision to reopen for in person class this fall, Snead said. Though — like other rural school divisions who have decided to bring students back to school — he insists that their county has a low enough number of COVID cases to make the risk of reopening their schools low.

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Man cleans between at Louisa County High School.

Credit: Mike Kropf/Charlottesville Tomorrow

Orange County has opted for a hybrid in person-virtual model this fall.

Students who wish to come to school can do so two days a week, with half the student body attending on the two ‘A’ days and the other half attending on the two ‘B’ days. This allows students to be more physically separated while in school.

About 60% of the student body opted for in-person learning — the rest are virtual only, Snead said.

Some nearby rural divisions have elected similar opening plans. Others have fully reopened as they were before the coronavirus struck. And still more are almost entirely virtual.

Just to the south of Greene, Albemarle County is also grappling with a large population of rural students who don’t have internet in their homes. But unlike Greene, Albemarle also includes a large urban area surrounding Charlottesville with more coronavirus cases making a large-scale reopening untenable.

So Albemarle has tried to walk the line.

The school division will be online only to all students — except those who cannot get internet to their home. Those students (along with students who have severe disabilities and those who are learning English) may come to school.

Only children who truly can’t get a signal at their homes will be coming into the school buildings. The kids who don’t have the internet for other reasons — like their parents can’t afford it — will get a hotspot device.

The school division’s technology department is compiling a list of students who live in areas with no broadband internet — and no cell signal.

“We know there are students we will just not be able to get the internet to,” said Christine Diggs, Albemarle’s chief technology officer. “There are rural parts of the county where we could try one of our hotspots, but you just can’t get a signal to it.”

For now, these rural school divisions are able to reach those children by simply bringing them to school. But that could change anytime.

Should the virus force students back home again this year, Louisa County is offering its design for solar powered wireless trailer units free to any schools who need them.

“We thought about selling the design and trying to make some money off it,” Bouwens, the career and technology director, said. “Because we don’t know what all this is going to cost in the end. But we’re all in this together and if other schools need this, they should have it.”