From left: Isaiah Deel, 5, and his brother Judah, 3, of Big Stone Gap. The two boys are enjoying broadband access provided by Starlink after Wise County Public Schools earlier this year launched a project connecting remote areas to the internet earlier. Photo: Jennifer Deel

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RICHMOND – Students in the most remote areas of Southwest Virginia who are without internet are one step closer to getting broadband access after a Senate panel on Thursday unanimously approved a measure that would require local school boards to submit an annual report to the Virginia Department of Education and the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development listing each student’s address that does not have broadband service.

“Throughout the pandemic, I think schools have gotten a pretty good sense of where service gaps are, in terms of which students are lagging access at home,” state Sen. Todd Pillion, R-Washington, the bill’s sponsor, told members of the Senate Education and Health Subcommittee on Public Education. “This bill is just one more tool in our toolkit that we can utilize to ensure we leverage the investment to its fullest extent and prioritize the opportunities to get our students the internet,” Pillion said.

State Sen. Todd Pillion, R-Washington County.

Broadband expansion has been a critical issue, especially in the mountainous regions of the Southwest. Just four years ago, 660,000 Virginia homes and businesses were without internet, but Virginia has since closed the digital divide by 90% after former Gov. Ralph Northam made the issue a top priority. His efforts were accelerated by the access to $700 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds that allowed Northam to move his previous 2028 deadline for universal coverage in the commonwealth up by four years.

Last fall, Northam said that the state would use $850 million in federal and state funds – matched by $1.5 billion in private and local government funds – to accommodate requests for $943 million in grants that would fund 57 projects statewide. Since 2018, the administration has awarded $846 million in broadband grants and connected over 429,000 homes and businesses.

This effort has been paramount in connecting students to the internet, particularly during the first year of the pandemic when most school systems moved to virtual learning. Pillion said Thursday that he had filed his legislation at the recommendation of Wise County’s clerk of the circuit court Jack Kennedy, a longtime advocate for bringing new technologies and industries to Southwest Virginia.

“The last two years have taught policymakers a lot about broadband access throughout the commonwealth, especially as parents sought to assist their children in ‘remote learning’ and ‘distance education’ and Zoom, Google MeetUp, WebEx, Skype, and the many other audio visual applications,” Kennedy said in an email. 

“But, one thing that was most disconcerting were the children being left behind having no access to broadband to get their classroom lecture or homework submitted. With $700 million, or more, having now been directed to buildout terrestrial fiber and space-based broadband constellations going active, now more than ever, the state departments administering financial monies for broadband, and those seeking to enhance remote learning opportunities need to know the locations of children literally being left behind so the problem is rapidly mitigated and ameliorated using solid data,” Kennedy said.

On average, students with broadband home internet access report an overall grade point average of 3.18 – significantly higher than the average 2.81 GPA for students with no access and the 2.75 average for students who have only a cell phone internet access, according to multiple scholarly studies conducted throughout the United States the past year. 

Pillion’s measure requires a report from each school district annually over the next four years to identify the addresses of students without internet access, so the 2024 date for full broadband coverage in Virginia becomes more realistic, not just another broken promise of broadband action, Kennedy said. 

“With each passing year, the General Assembly and other policymakers at the state and local level, will have real data to better determine the return on investment in broadband, especially as it relates to reaching the generation that will be the most dependent on broadband over the balance of this decade and the next to come. With data, there is responsibility and accountability for broadband,” he said.

Vicki Kitts with the Virginia Education Association told the committee Thursday that students in many places across Southwest Virginia were not able to do their assignments when their schools went virtual. “The pandemic has shown us the great divide that we have with broadband coverage,” Kitts said. 

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Markus Schmidt

Markus Schmidt is a reporter for Cardinal News. Reach him at markus@cardinalnews.org.