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Lynchburg City Council approves funding to close in-home internet divide among students

Lynchburg City Council voted 5-2 on Tuesday night to approve $3.5 million in CARES funding to expand the Lynchburg City Schools in-home network, launching Project WISH, a program aimed at eliminating connectivity gaps that could cause learning loss for students doing school from home.

The $3.5 million in CARES funding will cover the up-front cost of the program, however city officials also committed to an ongoing fee of $180,000 per year to fund a third party technical support contract, which costs roughly $60,000, as well as a full-time employee to provide maintenance for the program if need be, projected to pay $90,000. The remaining costs for the program are set aside for miscellaneous equipment.

“Leveraging federal funds with a relatively small amount of ongoing expenditure seems like a pretty worthwhile trade,” Vice Mayor Beau Wright said.

The project, divided into four phases, will give students safe and secure internet access through Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) at their own home.

“This really is an expansion of the Lynchburg City Schools network,” John Collins, the director of information technology for Lynchburg City Schools, said during Tuesday’s meeting.

“What we are doing is we are taking wireless technology to extend the LCS network as if you were in an LCS school building, into the homes of our students. That’s going to allow students to access things that are on our network, and eventually our teachers and staff as well.”

Phase one of the four-phase project, which will start in the coming months now that the funds were approved, will feature improvements for students in the downtown area of Lynchburg, as well as parts of the midtown area. Phase two will cover the rest of the midtown area, and also the College Park neighborhood, roughly three months after the completion of phase one.

Students in West and Northwest Lynchburg will see improvements in phase three, coming two months after the completion of phase two. The Rivermont and Boonsboro neighborhoods will be a part of phase four, starting three months following the completion of phase three, according to the timeline given during the presentation.

“We wanted to start with some of our higher densities of economically disadvantaged students and get it running in those areas,” Collins said when he was asked why specific parts of Lynchburg were chosen to be in the earlier phases.

According to the presentation, phases one and two will affect roughly 3,400 students, while phases three and four will impact 2,100 students.

Collins said LCS issued a survey to families, which showed “47% of students did not have broadband internet access at home,” making this program a necessity for almost half of LCS students.

“I know for years, when I started on the school board, there were only students who had to learn remotely due to discipline issues,” At-large Councilwoman Treney Tweedy said. “But the ability to prepare students for online learning ... prepares them for going to college in some ways.”

Ward III Councilman Jeff Helgeson and Ward IV Councilman Chris Faraldi voted to oppose this, citing ongoing cost issues, as well as the fact it only can be used by students of LCS, and not students of private and homeschools.

“Again, we are finding ourselves, albeit $180,000, we are finding ourselves with the school system using temporary, one-time money for recurring costs,” Faraldi said. “This was a concern of mine with the budget a year ago ... and quite frankly, I’m not terribly pleased that we’re again having this conversation of recurring costs.”

Others on council felt like the program could be useful for LCS to help attract students back to the school system amidst the rise in online learning.

“Public schools are one of our main priorities,” Ward II Councilman Dr. Sterling Wilder said. “As public officials, one of our goals is to see ‘what are some of the selling points of our school system?’ So this for me is another tool kit in our tool belt to say why you should attend our Lynchburg City Schools.”

With the funding for the project now approved, staff soon officially will start phase one of the project by applying and receiving any required building permits for the towers, which will be deployed for E.C. Glass High School and Dunbar Middle School for Innovation, according to the presentation.

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