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1 in 5 Virginia Students Face Virtual Learning Tech Barriers

A chromebook, similar to the free laptops being given to students in Richmond. (Photo Melk Hagelslag/Pixabay)

As schools prepare for virtual reopenings, a new State Council of Higher Education for Virginia study found that one in five Virginia students don’t have access to a computer or to high-speed internet.

According to the study, more than 200,000 K-12 students and 60,000 college students in Virginia don’t have a stable internet connection. 

“If you look at all the students in the state that don't have broadband in the home, 40% of them live in urban areas,” said Tom Allison, senior associate for finance policy and innovation at the state council.

The report notes that students in parts of Norfolk and Suffolk lack high-speed internet access at higher rates than students in some rural counties.

In rural areas, Allison says the main obstacle tends to be poor connectivity, but in cities and suburbs, where there is pre-existing broadband infrastructure, he says the issue is affordability. To bridge the gap in urban areas, federal and local initiatives have started providing Wi-Fi hotspots to families in need.

“This is a significant value and support to our more suburban and urban areas where those Wi-Fi hotspots could be utilized by students,” said Rep. Abigail Spanberger (7th District). Besides the federal E-Rate hotspot program, vans carrying Wi-Fi hotspotshave provided internet access to Henrico County students and staff.

The SCHEV study points to another big barrier: Many students don’t have a computer at all. In Richmond, about one in five students do not have a laptop or desktop computer in their home -- which is double the state average.

Allison also says the lack of access to a computer parallels other socioeconomic inequities.

“Eighteen percent of African American Virginia students don't have a laptop or desktop computer in the home, compared to seven percent of white Virginia students,” he said. “That sort of disparity really threatens to widen the already existing disparities that we have in education in Virginia.”

Spanberger says for some families with multiple children, a single computer may not be enough for all the students in that household to attend online classes at the same time. In many cases, this results in students resorting to their mobile devices.

“If you're doing math lessons virtually, and one student might be doing it on a computer, and another might have to utilize a smartphone, that's an entirely different experience,” she said. “Those experiences would be different and the level of learning and access to learning would be different.”

The federal government provided Virginia with over $230 million through the CARES Act, which pointed to remote learning technology as a spending priority for local school districts. Richmond Public Schools received about $13 million in CARES funding.

In anticipation of a fully virtual reopening, Richmond Public Schools has spent over $5.5 million from budget reallocations and grants to distribute 16,000 Chromebook laptops and 6,000 hotspots to students in need. 

“COVID-19 has highlighted the inequities our students face in digital learning,” the SCHEV report reads. “However, it also presents an opportunity to form a comprehensive response to the challenges presented by the digital divide.”

Spanberger says the coronavirus pandemic has been a wake up call not only in education, but also in many other areas, including healthcare, where there has been an increased need for remote telehealth technology.

“It’s forced us to really understand just how much we depend on the internet in our daily lives,” she said. “After we are coming out of the COVID crisis, we need to continue the conversation related to broadband accessibility.”


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