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Rural Woodbridge School District is among Delaware’s school districts facing online challenges within its community during the coronavirus crisis.

Additional help may loom over the immediate horizon for the district, which includes northwestern Sussex County and southwestern Kent County.

In a virtual town hall session Monday, state officials announced that $20 million in CARES Act funding is earmarked for high-speed internet expansion, a demand magnified by upcoming remote learning necessitated by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Based on a districtwide survey last spring, three in 10 families in the Woodbridge district indicated they had no internet service.

“We were 3 in 10. It might be connectivity, but it also may be affordability. It’s one or the other,” said Woodbridge Superintendent Heath Chasanov.

“When we did a survey back in March when we first went remote to finish out the year, we had a pretty good return rate — probably 60 to 70% return rate. Of that, it was 30% of our population didn’t have reliable internet.”

Gov. John Carney hopes to change that.

“Over the last two years, Delaware has worked to eliminate internet deserts and make high-speed internet a reality for all Delawareans,” he said Monday.

“Now more than ever, we know how essential reliable internet is for daily life. These funds will help us build additional broadband infrastructure, identify areas where we need to improve internet speeds and eliminate barriers, so that Delaware families can have quality internet — whether it’s for remote learning, working or connecting with family.”

CARES Act funding will be utilized to build out additional infrastructure across Delaware, gather strategic data through a statewide speed survey and acquire equipment and services for families in financial need.

Additionally, 15 towers in the current phase of the Rural Wireless Broadband Initiative in Kent and Sussex counties will be completed about four months ahead of schedule. Originally slated to be completed by the end of 2020, the project received a boost of $566,000 through the Delaware Department of Education’s CARES Act funds to fast-track reaching more students in unserved and underserved areas in need of high-speed broadband for remote learning during the pandemic.

Combined with the initial $2 million investment in state funding, the Rural Wireless Broadband Initiative is expected to serve more than 1,500 customers in rural areas and has capacity to expand.

“We know that access to high-speed broadband is as essential as any public utility, and the COVID-19 pandemic made that need even more evident — the day of reckoning for broadband is here,” said James Collins, chief information officer for the state Department of Technology & Information. “We are very much encouraged by the significant progress that has been made but we have more to do. We will continue to pursue any and all avenues available to us to ensure digital equity across our entire state.”

Delaware will also use CARES Act funds to cover equipment installation and broadband service for students from low-income households across the state for remote- or hybrid-learning purposes.

Woodbridge is gearing up for a Sept. 16 start for the 2020-21 year with a mix of hybrid/remote learning for its 2,500-plus students.

“These past few months, our staff was tasked with the great challenge of providing remote instruction, a concept that really transformed how we taught our students and, more importantly, how we could serve their needs. This task seemed almost insurmountable as we learned how many of our students and staff lived in remote areas with little internet reliability or connectivity,” said Elyse Baerga, supervisor of student services for Woodbridge.

“The state’s commitment towards improving these conditions is critical to our students’ continued success. As all school districts throughout the state plan and prepare for hybrid learning, we will be relying on these resources to improve our ability to deliver instruction and services, to better serve our students. We are grateful to see how many families are already taking advantage of this amazing opportunity.”

State Secretary of Education Susan Bunting agreed.

“For our students who are starting the school year learning remotely, having access to the internet is critical to their academic growth,” said Dr. Bunting. “We also have educators who are teaching from home right now and need reliable service. Connectivity is an immediate need with a solution that will serve them beyond the pandemic. We are grateful for DTI’s efforts in helping us support both students and educators.”

Additional information on this program will be announced in the coming weeks.

Mr. Chasanov said the Woodbridge district is working with Bloosurf, an internet/broadband provider on Delmarva, and the DTI.

“We are a district that certainly has taken advantage of what they are doing with Bloosurf and trying to get connectivity into our community,” said Mr. Chasanov. “Bloosurf has been phenomenal to work with. The Department of Technology (& Information) has been phenomenal. We get calls from parents. We forward them to Bloosurf, and Bloosurf gets back to them pretty quickly and says, ‘Here’s what you need.’ It’s good. It really is.

“We don’t have an understanding of the total impact yet,” he added. “We’re hoping that 30% number gets crushed down to single digits. We’ll have to wait and see.”

The growing need for reliable internet service goes well beyond schools, Mr. Chasanov said.

“The internet, with everybody going into e-government and everything being online, it has kind of turned into it’s necessary like electric and water,” he said.

Amie Errickson, a Clayton resident and new Bloosurf customer, is appreciative of the expanded services.

“Being able to get wireless broadband service was heaven-sent,” she said. “We did not have access to any broadband service before. In fact, we used to have to put all the kids in the car and drive to the school parking lot just to use the Wi-Fi to get their homework done. Now, they will be able to access the virtual learning they need.”

To learn more about Delaware’s broadband efforts, visit broadband.delaware.gova>.

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Autor(en)/Author(s): Glenn Rolfe

Quelle/Source: Delaware State News, 24.08.2020

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