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September 15, 2020

In-person class option falters in General Assembly

Photo/Janice Burton
Russell County’s Honaker High School in Southwest Virginia offers in-person and online instruction.
This is an equity issue. Some children do not have access to the internet or internet of sufficient capacity to be able participants in online instruction, primarily rural and poor children.
— Del. Mark Cole (R-Spotsylvania)
By Sam Fowler
Capital News Service

RICHMOND — An effort to require Virginia school districts provide in-person classes to students with poor internet access during the COVID-19 pandemic is most likely dead.

House Bill 5009, introduced by Del. Mark Cole (R-Spotsylvania), who represents part of Fauquier, would require public schools to offer in-person classes to elementary, middle and high school students who have substandard internet connections at home.

The bill was referred in August to the House Committee on Education during the Virginia General Assembly special session, but the legislation still hasn’t been addressed as the legislature nears crossover day — when each chamber must act on bills for them to advance.

“Anything still left in committee, will essentially die. So, it doesn’t look like this bill will progress,” Del. Joshua Cole (D-Stafford), who co-sponsored the bill, said in an email.

Mark Cole’s bill would have required schools to provide in-person instruction to individuals who can’t access an internet speed of more than 10 megabits per second download and one Mbps upload.

“This is an equity issue,” Mark Cole wrote in an email earlier this month. “Some children do not have access to the internet or internet of sufficient capacity to be able participants in online instruction, primarily rural and poor children.”

More than 1 million public school students were slated to start school in an online-only format, according to data posted in August by the Virginia Public Access Project. That includes Fairfax County, home to almost 189,000 students. More than 269,000 children were set to start school in a hybrid format that offers in-person and online instruction. Many of those students are in rural areas. Hanover County, which enrolls more than 17,500 students, is the largest school district offering a blended format, according to VPAP.

Fauquier County Public Schools provides virtual instruction for all students, except some in special education and career-technical programs.

Russell County in Southwest Virginia is among the schools offering an in-person and online learning format. The school has set up an internet hotspot on school grounds to help students download material for class, and zip drives to store what they download, according to Janice Barton, a teacher at the school. High schools in the surrounding area have also done the same, Ms. Barton said.

Even though schools are offering ways to access the internet, they’re still not offering high-speed access, Mark Cole said.

“This still puts children without high speed internet at a disadvantage over those that can participate in the comfort of their homes,” he said. “Children have to be driven to a hotspot, often a school parking lot, where they try to receive instruction while sitting in their car.”

Joshua Cole believes children should have an equal opportunity to learn without having to worry about attending online classes.

“If you don’t have internet, if you don’t have high speed internet, if your speeds are low, we want to make sure that your student is not left out,” he said.

Stafford County gives some students an opportunity to come to school if they need to, said Joshua Cole, who is one of the county’s representatives in the House. The lawmaker said only some students are attending in-person classes in Stafford County, primarily students with disabilities or those without reliable internet access.

“It’s not a bunch of students coming in,” he said.

Fredericksburg City Public Schools partnered with business owners in the area who are helping fund internet hotspots for students to access from their homes, according to Joshua Cole.

Many schools that are offering in-person instruction have created spaces to accommodate students and follow social distancing guidelines.

“We have signs in the hallways, in our classrooms. We have it set up 6 feet apart,” Barton said. “We have cleaning supplies; every teacher has that.”

Russell County Public Schools also provide students and teachers with masks, Barton said.

Senate Bill 5114, sponsored by Sen. Ryan McDougle (R-Mechanicsville) had similar wording to Mark Cole’s bill, but it was passed by indefinitely, which means the bill is dead unless the committee takes additional action.
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Julie G Duggan · September 16, 2020 at 11:10 am
Dear nonewtaxes,
I did not suggest that broadband internet should be free. However, it should be available and affordable, like electricity and telephone services. Government and providers can work together to make this happen.
FairandBalanced · September 16, 2020 at 10:14 am
These parents just don't get it. They think opening schools, restaurants, gyms and the rest of world right now will get the world back to normal. The majority of the world is going to continue to hunker down, sit at home and avoid exposure to other people. Middle age teachers with their own health problems or children or elderly parents at home are going to quit en mass if forced to both take a bullet from some mass shooter and contract Covid-19. No one is going to flock to restaurants and revive the industry. Its just not going to happen. Local, state and federal government restrictions and CDC recommendations are not imposing economic and social hardship - vast, majority public sentiment temperament and caution is keeping most of us off the streets until a vaccine is developed and it is safe to participate in the world again.
nonewtaxes · September 16, 2020 at 6:57 am
Dear Julie,

You have access to high speed internet. Just look up to the sky and get a dish. What you want is someone to pay for your service. Gimmee gimmee gimmee commie.
FairandBalanced · September 15, 2020 at 3:26 pm
People who think the cost of public education has been reduced because of the pandemic are disconnected from reality or don't want to understand the new dynamics in play. Ask any school district administrator and they will tell you the operating costs of online programs are about the same as the operating costs of a regular bricks and mortar school. (International Association for K-12 Online Learning).

However, when schools do open their doors again operating costs are going to soar because of safety and health compliance costs proposed by the CDC, additional counselling and nursing personnel, more teachers for smaller classes and PPE expenses.
brandonj · September 15, 2020 at 11:47 am
How about a bill that just refunds taxpayer money to all households? That would be the most equitable solution. Might as well keep it permanent too...
karl engels · September 15, 2020 at 10:40 am
I wholeheartedly agree with Julie. The fact that it is now 2020 and broadband internet access is not universally accessible in this country is a failure on our leaders.
Julie G Duggan · September 15, 2020 at 10:35 am
Poor or no internet is indeed a hindrance to students not only in Virginia but across the country. But this is a failure of infrastructure, not schools, many of which are not prepared to manage crowds of students and teachers safely during a pandemic. If Mr. Cole is really interested in equity, he should work to bring internet services to his constituents. When the pandemic ends, many American children will still be at an educational disadvantage until internet services are available to all. The U.S. accomplished this many years ago with telephone services by requiring utilities to meet rural needs. The utilities continued to profit by providing services to more populated areas. Internet access has become an essential need. The lack of high speed internet hinders education and commerce in Fauquier County. Citizens would be better served if legislators would throw their efforts into securing better infrastructure and protecting the public health.
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