On Friday afternoon, Emma Herndon and her children sat in their van at the parking lot of Yancey School Community Center to access the internet.
Herndon said she and her family recently moved to the Esmont area and that internet access has a been a big problem for her family, especially now during the COVID-19 pandemic. Parking lot access is useful, but has its drawbacks too.
“I have four kids, one of which is eight months old, so it’s not really useful to pack up four kids and sit in the parking lot for my 10-year-old to do his work,” she said. “It’s not fair to him to sit here and listen to a, most of the time, crying baby.”
Albemarle County Public Schools has extended its school division WiFi signal strength at school parking lots and the Yancey School Community Center during the pandemic for use by the public.
“It’s fiber, so it’s a lot more robust of a connection than a hotspot can provide,” said Christine Diggs, the division’s chief technology officer. “It’s a lot better for handling video and audio and those kinds of bigger demand items that stretch out bandwidth on a hotspot.”
But despite the school division’s efforts, many in the community still say the pandemic has exacerbated internet access problems for school children and those now trying to work from home.
Renee Lundgren, a family support worker in the county’s social services department, said the division has been wonderful in trying to meet the needs of children, but it’s still very difficult to get everything done with limited or no internet access.
“This has been going on for so many years, and then COVID, it just really changed the landscape and really accents the difficulties and inequities in services for people,” she said.
Lundgren, who picks up meals at Yancey, said she has seen a number of families utilize the WiFi there.
“Moms are in the front seat trying to help the older kids with work,” she said. “I’ve seen families sitting up huddled in the doorway because it’s raining. A family, they were all covered up with blankets a few weeks ago, because it was so cold, she was sitting with three kids trying to get work accomplished.”
Diggs said school division staff know people are utilizing the parking lots for internet, but did not know the specific numbers.
“Our engineers are able to see connections but they can’t really count them,” she said. “We have some anecdotal evidence and then we have some technical evidence that it’s being used, but I can’t really quantify it.”
The division has also issued Kajeet hotspots to teachers and high school students that live in an area where they can get a signal, as Kajeet works with the major U.S. carriers to supply reliable connections.
More than 2,000 laptops went out to students in grades three through five who needed them, and students in kindergarten through second grade who do not have an older sibling in the division were issued iPads.
Herndon said that because of internet issues, one of her son’s teachers has dropped off packets of work for him at Food Lion and her other son’s teacher mailed a packet to their home. She used to homeschool her kids until they moved to their current home.
“One of the big reasons that I’ve ended up putting them in school is because of the lack of resources — I couldn’t access anything online for them,” she said.
Just this week, however, Herndon learned from her neighbors that her family might be able to connect to service through CenturyLink, as multiple neighbors have it.
“I’m hopeful that like since it’s at one end and the other end, maybe it met in the middle and we would be able to get it, because it’s really an issue,” she said.
Diggs said teachers have learned which students do not have home internet access during the division’s Check and Connect program, which was expanded to check in with all students once a week.
“The numbers are still changing, we’re still getting more information, but it’s going to be way better than we anticipated in terms of being able to really get solid data about where we don’t have internet access in the county,” she said. “We’ll be analyzing that data and plotting it on a map so that we’ll be able to graphically show people where those pockets are for our teachers and students.”
At an Albemarle Broadband Authority Board of Directors meeting last week, member Waldo Jaquith said that over the past couple of months it’s become more evident that broadband is a true necessity.
“At the moment, for many people, it’s the difference between unemployed and employed,” he said. “The difference between your kids can be educated and your kids can’t be educated. It’s a really big deal.”
Jaquith listed a number of ideas for the ABBA board, such as a grant program to rural places like country stores that provide public WiFi that’s accessible from parking lots, temporarily allowing new cell towers with minimum regulations or allowing temporary structures and locating school buses in rural areas to act as extensions of school WiFi.
He said he wanted to better grasp what the limits of the authority’s powers, responsibilities and what it can permissibly do as an organization.
“I’d like to figure out what those are so that when we see significant changes happening in federal funding and changes in regulation, law and policy, that we can capitalize on that as quickly as possible for these people who just can’t work, can’t send their kids to school, they’re just stuck,” he said.
Other members said they would be interested in looking into those ideas.
The authority in March put out a request for information to get input from internet service providers about expanding service to approximately 3,700 unserved and underserved homes and businesses in Albemarle, ahead of a potential request for proposals. The ABBA board last week voted to move forward with putting out an RFP.
Mike Culp, Albemarle’s director of information technology, said in an interview that residents are contacting the county almost daily about internet access issues.
“We continue to encourage these people to self report at the broadband report, albemarle.org/broadbandreport, and we’re seeing more reports come in since COVID-19, people are going in and reporting bad service,” he said.