When schools were forced to close last spring and remote learning plans were put in place due to the unprecedented coronavirus pandemic, Delaware's school districts saw first-hand the difficulty of that transition.
"Nearly 30 percent of our families could not access the internet or had really poor connectivity; it impacted our community greatly, where we had teachers struggling to provide instruction from their homes, and couldn't access it, students who couldn't reach, and we had to be really creative in a challenging situation that seemed almost insurmountable," said Elyse Baerga, Supervisor of Student Services, Woodbridge School District
They learned more families than they knew didn't have access to reliable broadband internet, and while hotspots set up in parking lots attempted to be a temporary solution, it presented equity issues. Some families had to do their school work from a car in a parking lot while others sat comfortably in their living rooms while others still were unable to travel to the hotspots at all.
New Castle County unveiled eight new public WiFi hot spots on Monday, March 30, 2020, to hel…
"These were temporary fixes and they were not sustainable solutions; they also weren't viable options for all of our students and our families, and that left some of our students at a learning disadvantage..so we wanted to make sure that that didn't happen again," said state Education Secretary Susan Bunting.
Now, the state wants to use $20 million in federal CARES Act money to increase access to broadband internet to ensure that any family that wants or needs that access can get it. As the school year gets underway, many districts are beginning the school year with a virtual model while others are offering a hybrid mix of remote and in-person learning. Families who have high-risk members or concerns about safety in schools all have remote options.
"Having home access is critical to both our educators' instructional success and also our student learning," said Bunting.
"We're going to address the access issue, and we're going to address the affordability issue," said James Collins, chief information officer for the Delaware Department of Technology and Information.
They plan to spend $13.6 million on affordability.
"We're going to purchase broadband services in bulk for low-income families. So we're going to partner with health and social services and the school districts to identify those families that are low-income and give them the opportunity to get a voucher subsidy to get broadband access," said Collins.
"Our low-income families really struggle with adding on during these really challenging times--another bill, another payment--and then the thought of not being able to provide instruction to their children during times where we will be approaching instruction from a hybrid level....so it's going to be critical for us to be able to continue to access them, but to serve all of their individual needs," said Baerga.
The state will also spend another nearly $6 million in incentivizing private broadband providers.
"For providers that have, essentially, shovel-ready expansion that they can do to increase their network or speeds in areas," he said.
"To fill in some gaps that otherwise they wouldn't do because it doesn't make financial sense for them to do that given the limited number of customers in these rural areas, so it is importantly there's a role there for the government," said Gov. John Carney.
They'll conduct a statewide, crowd-sourced internet speed survey.
"Go there from all of your devices, and it will collect the speed," said Collins.
For those without access, they can call 302.739.9071.
"That will help us really understand where are the deserts, where are low speeds, where's great speed, and then we can really focus in our next phase of broadband deployment," said Collins.
"This is an investment that's going to continue to serve Delawareans long after the pandemic," said Bunting.