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Ensuring Every Child Has Access to Internet

Students in West Virginia primary and secondary schools get free breakfast and lunch. We provide them with free textbooks. In many counties, all are furnished with devices such as IPads or Chromebooks.

But many do not have access to the internet at home. Months of “distance learning” due to the COVID-19 epidemic have made it clear — though it should have been so previously — that such isolation is a problem.

Gov. Jim Justice hopes to do something about that. Last week, he revealed the state will spend about $6 million to establish more than 1,000 Wi-Fi hotspots throughout the state. The governor’s goal is to give parents and students “total optionality” regarding whether they go to school or learn at home during the epidemic.

Good for the governor. But what about children whose homes are not near the schools, libraries, state parks and other places where hotspots are to be placed? A percentage of homes — it’s doubtful anyone knows precisely how many — will be left out in the cold.

Understand that even if they are attending school five days a week, lack of internet access at home is a problem for students. Think back to when you were young: Were you among the many kids whose parents took advantage of those supermarket promotions in which a set of encyclopedias could be acquired, one volume a week, at $2.99 each? In five or six months, mom and dad had provided you with a wonderful tool to help with homework.

Think of the internet as that set of encyclopedias — and much more. If you don’t have access at home, you’re going to fall behind classmates who do. It’s that simple.

What do we do about the students whose homes can’t benefit from free Wi-Fi through the governor’s hotspots or existing free access?

There are lots of ways to get into the internet. Satellite television dishes can do it. Your cell phone can be turned into a hotspot. Your landline phone provider can help.

But everything costs money. Often, there’s an initial equipment charge, then monthly fees. Some people can’t afford it. If mom and dad — or, increasingly, mom or dad — can’t afford to give you breakfast and pay for school lunch, how can they be expected to cover $20-$50 a month for the internet?

West Virginians can’t afford to provide free internet for every student. Last year, 261,633 youngsters were enrolled in public schools here. Call it $250 a year to pay internet access fees for all of them, and you’ve taken on a $65 million-a-year bill.

Fewer than half of the students come from what the state calls “lower socio-economic status” homes. Help only them and the bill drops to a manageable $30 million a year.

Initial equipment costs for their homes could come out of the state’s $1.25 billion in federal COVID-19 relief money.

It’s doable.

A simplistic suggestion? Yes. Lots of factors I haven’t mentioned need to be taken into account. Heck, I’ll bet I could make my simple idea too complicated and expensive to achieve within an hour or two.

Or we West Virginians could just decide to keep it simple and make it work. For the kids.

You’ve heard that before, haven’t you?

Myer can be reached at mmyer@theintelligencer.net.

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