Internet a challenge for virtual students

A solar-powered internet hotspot at Trevilians Elementary School.

Getting a strong internet connection remains a challenge for many people in the county. While this may have been an inconvenience before the pandemic, it is now inescapable for families with children enrolled in Louisa County Public Schools’ virtual academy. 

Hope Mayes has two children enrolled in the virtual academy in grades three and nine. She and her family live at Lake Anna, and she says they experience internet challenges three to four times a week. This sometimes inhibits her children from being able to complete assignments on time, she said.  

Weekends are even worse. 

“It’s so populated [on Lake Anna] during the weekend, and there are so many people pulling from the same cell phone tower,” Mayes said. “I’m lucky to get a text sent or get one to come through.” 

Mayes and her husband work outside of the home full time, and are not able to take their children to places to get internet access, such as the 17 solar-powered Wireless on Wheels [WOW] stations that the school system set up throughout the county, until the evenings or on weekends. 

Both of their children have expressed frustration that they are unable to get their work turned in on time due to having trouble connecting to the internet, and they are not alone. 

Jennifer Cushman also has two children enrolled in the virtual academy in grades one and three. Her family lives at the other end of the county, in the Trevilians area, and faces challenges similar to the ones Mayes is facing: Some days, the internet just doesn’t work. 

When this happens, she uses a device that plugs into her car and creates a WiFi signal. 

“I have had to, on occasion, pull the car up next to the window and log them in so they could continue classes,” Cushman said. 

Another parent with two virtual students, Mary Birckhead, says the internet connection can only run one computer at a time and won’t support video calls. 

As a result, she drives her kids to one of the WOW stations every day so they can attend classes via Zoom. She spends an average of four hours a day sitting in the car, trying to connect. 

Internet challenges are not isolated to a single part of the county. Superintendent Doug Straley and Director of Virtual Learning Dr. Lisa Chen both acknowledge internet connectivity is a big challenge for virtual students living in a rural community. 

The WOW stations set up throughout the county as wireless hotspots were intended as one solution to provide internet access to families. 

“We know that it doesn’t work for everyone, but it helps a lot of our families who need internet connection,” Straley said. “If they can’t use these, we’ve got to find other options for them.”

One solution is setting up more of the wireless stations so that some families don’t have to travel as far to access one. Currently, there are 18 WOW stations scattered throughout the county. There are 10 more that have already been built that are ready to be set up in the community, and LCPS anticipates another four to be built in the coming months.

While the schools are doing what they can to provide internet to families, a lot remains outside of their control. 

In September, the Louisa County Board of Supervisors approved a $15 million incentive to bring reliable broadband access to Louisa. On Facebook, the “Louisa Residents for Internet Service” group is sharing a petition that has been signed by more than 1,760 people asking Virginia representatives and leaders and broadband providers Comcast, CenturyLink and AT&T to work with Louisa’s government on this initiative. 

“In Louisa County there is a demand, just no supply,” the petition reads. “We are asking for you to take notice of us and our willingness to spend our hard-earned money for your service.”

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