Public-private coalition offers affordable internet, computers to central Ohio students

Nate Ellis
ThisWeek group
Eric Stoll (left) and Michele Hoyle remove computer parts from the back of a vehicle Nov. 21 at the Upper Arlington Municipal Services Center. The Rotary Club of Upper Arlington held a contactless computer-donation drive in partnership with the Central Ohio Broadband Access Pilot Program, which provides internet services and computers to central Ohio students for a nominal fee.

A coalition of public and private partners has come together to provide – for a nominal fee – computers and internet access to students who otherwise might not be able to complete remote-learning assignments.

When the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic led to a state order shutting down school buildings in March, officials at the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission and the Educational Service Center of Central Ohio realized some students in the region were at risk of falling behind because of a lack of home access to the internet or computers.

The issue remained for the current school year, with most districts using remote- or hybrid-learning models.

As a result, MORPC and the ESC of Central Ohio teamed with PCs for People, a national nonprofit with offices in Cleveland that provides refurbished computers to low-income residents.

Through the Central Ohio Broadband Access Pilot Program, the three organizations and their supporters provide 12 months of internet service for students in central Ohio, including those attending charter and private schools, for a one-time fee of $20 per household.

Eric Stoll and Herb Gillen (right) greet a resident making a computer donation Nov. 21 at the Upper Arlington Municipal Services Center. The Rotary Club of Upper Arlington held a contactless computer-donation drive in partnership with the Central Ohio Broadband Access Pilot Program, which provides internet services and computers to central Ohio students for a nominal fee.

A computer or hotspot device that offers internet access also may be obtained for $20. The students can keep the devices.

Students in Columbus City Schools are not eligible for the program because they have access to a district program with the same services.

“We began work to set this up in the spring and summer,” said Aaron Schill, MORPC director of data and mapping. “It’s new this school year and in direct response to the COVID situation and remote learning.

“We have funding to provide up to 10,000 hotspot devices and up to 10,000 computers. No new infrastructure or professional installation is required.”

Schill said MORPC studies show that in Franklin County, about 100,000 households don’t have fixed-internet access, and about 40,000 households don’t have any access.  

Debby Johnson, president of the Rotary Club of Upper Arlington, helps carry a box onto a truck Nov. 21 at the Upper Arlington Municipal Services Center. The Rotary Club of Upper Arlington held a contactless computer-donation drive in partnership with the Central Ohio Broadband Access Pilot Program, which provides internet services and computers to central Ohio students for a nominal fee.

In addition to building relationships with businesses, nonprofits and a range of community groups, program administrators have spent the school year seeking donations of computers and hotspot devices to refurbish.  

“We’re also working with internet service providers to provide hotspot devices and prepaid, one-year unlimited data plans,” Schill said. “We’d heard a lot of stories about people sitting in parking lots – library parking lots or going to Starbucks or McDonald’s – just to download assignments.

“This is providing the computer equipment and internet access that most of us have ... to folks that can’t afford it or have some other barrier to access.”

Schill said the program had $2.27 million in funding as of Nov. 23.

Of that, $1.5 million is federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act funding that was granted to the city of Columbus and passed on to the pilot program. 

Another $500,000 in CARES Act funding was passed on to the program from Franklin County.

Sevearl local organizations contributed monetarily and in other ways, Schill said.

"Many additional organizations have contributed computers, donated in-kind advertising, and supported in other ways," Schill said. "The total number of contributing organizations is nearly two dozen at this point."

Herb Gillen removes a computer monitor from the back of a vehicle Nov. 21 at the Upper Arlington Municipal Services Center. The Rotary Club of Upper Arlington held a contactless computer-donation drive in partnership with the Central Ohio Broadband Access Pilot Program, which provides internet services and computers to central Ohio students for a nominal fee.

Whitehall City Schools is among the districts benefiting from the program.  

Maria Boyarko, coordinator of student services, said district officials needed a solution when a survey from March found 210 Whitehall district households lacked internet services.

“It’s a lot of folks,” Boyarko said. “Some families have five or six kids.”

Whitehall provided tablet computers this school year to each of its 3,400 students, and Boyarko said 600 to 700 students have opted for online-only learning.

She said about 120 students have taken advantage of the Central Ohio Broadband Access Pilot Program, and the figure continues to increase.

“We have a lot of families that are low income, and we didn’t want to add another financial hardship for them, especially because we didn’t know exactly what school would look like this year,” Boyarko said. “We wanted to make sure they had all the resources that we could provide so their learning was not interrupted.  

“I don’t know what we would’ve done without this program. We were looking into pricing, and it’s around $30 a month for internet service and another $40 a month for a device.”  

According to Jennifer Fry, chief technology officer for Delaware City Schools, her district has 5,799 students, and 48 families – some with more than one student – have utilized the program.

“Delaware City Schools partnered with MORPC, the ESC of Central Ohio and PCs for People on the Central Ohio Broadband Access Pilot Program in order to provide broadband connectivity for students in need attending our schools,” Fry said. “It is important as we support students and families that they have access to our curriculum resources and the means to interact with their teachers, as needed.

“This support has been critical in helping our students access learning during the 2020-21 school year, as our students are either learning in a blended-learning model with half of their time at school and half their time at home, or they have selected to learn fully online.”

Schill said although the program is designed to help students, it also is helping adults because the households that receive the services and equipment can use them when students are offline.

Schill said it hasn’t been determined if the program would continue beyond this school year.

“Anyone in central Ohio we can service as long as they live within the MORPC and ESC (of Central Ohio) service areas,” he said. “Basically, it’s anywhere in central Ohio.

“We will keep the program going until we don’t have any more funding.”

Additional information about the program, including how to gain access to services and equipment, is available at morpc.org/broadband.

nellis@thisweeknews.com

@ThisWeekNate