CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Broadband and education took center stage in discussions among West Virginia leaders on Tuesday.
The Education Alliance hosted an EDTalk on Zoom titled “Broadband: Expanding Equity and Access to Learning” that featured U.S. Senators Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Shelley Moore Capito (D-W.Va.), West Virginia Superintendent of Schools Clayton Burch, and Rob Hinton, the Chair of the WV Broadband Enhancement Council.
Each year the Education Alliance hosts regional events in the state on public education with Tuesday’s centering on how public education during the COVID-19 crisis has been shaped by online activity.
“Our teachers have adapted but when they are not connected it makes it hard for our students to be able during this pandemic to get the necessary education they need,” Manchin said on the call.
Manchin spoke on the connectivity funding that he and Capito have been able to bring to West Virginia including $570 appropriation package for the ReConnect Program, $5 million in broadband funding from Appalachian Regional Commission for distressed for North Central Appalachia, and an $18.7 million grant through ReConnect Program that is meant to improve rural broadband for more than 6,300 rural households in Harrison, Doddridge, Lewis, Barbour, and Upshur counties.
On May 7, both senators introduced the Eliminating Barriers to Rural Internet Development Grant Eligibility Act, which would remove obstacles for broadband projects to receive Economic Development Administration grants.
“Today in the 21st century, we still don’t have connectivity throughout every nook and cranny, throughout every holler, every valley, every river. Every home does not have that connectivity. For us to succeed, it has to be the same undertaking as we did in the 1930s with electricity,” Manchin said.
Capito, along with Manchin, agreed that part of the problem with getting more funding for broadband with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is the mapping inaccuracies. During the meeting, both advocated for citizens to participate in speed testing with the FCC.
In late March, President Donald Trump signed the Broadband DATA Act that will issue rules to the FCC relating to the collection of data with respect to the availability of broadband services, and for other purposes.
Capito said the current mapping is done more regionally and that determines where the federal dollars go when it should go to individual houses. In doing so, she said that will help educate children in West Virginia more easily.
“The school system has worked hard to get devices into the high schools, middle schools, and even the elementary schools. But if they can’t take it home with it and do their homework and do their research projects, they are behind,” Capito said.
“We need to make sure every child in West Virginia has every tool to learn in their home.”
Burch said on Tuesday that his department is continuing its work with broadband during the changing landscape but also said, “We need to thank our teachers and service personal. They have gone above and beyond to figure out ways to engage our students despite the diverse equity and internet access.”