In the early days of the internet, an at-home subscription and the associated monthly bill was something that families trying to make ends meet could skip without worrying about how it would affect their job or their children’s education. But with many workplaces and schools switching to remote work since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, our relationship to the internet has changed, said Ben Willis, director of the Education Foundation Inc. of Caldwell County. “The pandemic has taught us the importance of having internet access in the home, especially for students having to learn remotely,” he said. “Bridging the digital divide in Caldwell County is more important now than ever.”
That’s why the Education Foundation has partnered with local internet service providers to highlight ways to help Caldwell County Schools students, teachers and parents who are entering a school year in which at least half of the learning will be done remotely. One result of those efforts was a series of events Tuesday afternoon at three elementary schools to promote Spectrum Internet Assist, a high-speed broadband service that Spectrum offers to families and senior citizens. Mike Watson, Spectrum
area vice president of field operations, said in a press release that the goal is to expand affordable internet options. “It’s crucial for broadband providers like us to play a role in bridging the digital divide, so everyone has access to the information and tools they need to succeed in today’s economy,” he said.
Phoebe Landon, manager of government and community strategy for Spectrum, was at Valmead Elementary School on Tuesday, the last day that county residents with children 18-and-under could collect free meals from the school system. Beginning the week of Aug. 24, families will be able to pick up meals again, but unless they are enrolled in the National School Lunch Program, which offers free or reduced-price meals to students
from low-income households, they will have to pay. Landon said that her team chose Tuesday’s event because participation in the National School Lunch Program is one of the ways new customers can qualify for Spectrum Internet Assist, and Landon knows that awareness is one obstacle to affordable internet. “So many people in Caldwell County are eligible for this program, and one issue that we have to address with expanding access to internet is an adoption gap, where folks may have access to internet at their home but they haven’t signed up,” whether because it’s too expensive or they don’t think it’s necessary, she said.
A separate obstacle, internet infrastructure, requires a much more complex — and expensive — solution, especially in rural or mountainous areas, said Michael Tanck, director of government affairs for Spectrum. “I know that there’s a lot of other conversation going on across the state and across the
country about trying to extend” internet to unserved areas, he said. Factors such as terrain, existing infrastructure and the number of potential customers in an area, “all of those types of things have big impacts on how internet gets to you.”
In April, one month after schools closed statewide in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19, the Education Foundation, in partnership with Google, unveiled the Rolling Hotspot program as an attempt to answer the problem of internet availability. Throughout the summer, local school buses retrofitted with Wi-Fi hotspot devices were sent to spots around the county to give students and teachers without internet at home a chance to connect for free and complete their assignments. But school is scheduled to restart Aug. 17 and because Caldwell County plans to reopen with a mixture of in-person and online instruction, the buses must return to transporting
students to and from school.
Without those hotspots, Willis said, the school system and Education Foundation will need to start looking for new ways to bridge the gap.
In the meantime, he hopes to make internet-ready residents aware of affordable options for internet services, not just those from Spectrum. A list of options is available at www.caldwelleducationfoundation.com/resources/ and he said that his organization will continue to push for access to resources like hotspots and laptops for students and teachers in the county.
Reporter Garrett Stell can be reached at 828-610-8723.