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.