As local school systems began to form their reopening plans amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, it became clear that there would be many challenges to overcome, regardless of whether classes would “go virtual” or students were back in the classroom. The Community Foundation’s Central Virginia COVID-19 Response Fund began providing much-needed resources to support students and teachers, particularly for new virtual learning environments. In total, the Response Fund and individual Community Foundation donors have granted over $1.16 million to bridge the digital divide in ten local school districts - urban and rural, from Henrico to Colonial Heights. “This Fund is a notable example of our capacity to leverage regional partnerships and provide vital funding to organizations that have had to pivot quickly to address so many unexpected challenges,” shared Martha Heeter, Executive Director of Plan RVA, who helped establish and guide the Fund.
In some districts, grants are being used to buy video equipment and supply training for staff as they adapt their teaching and service delivery methods. “These funds allowed us to support urgent training to prepare principals, instructional coaches and teachers for the fall semester of virtual learning in ways that will bolster student achievement and address anticipated learning loss from the spring”, said Mike Taylor, Executive Director of the Henrico Education Foundation, a public-private organization working to advance initiatives designed to improve student achievement in the school district.
In other areas of the region, lack of Broadband access can impact both students and teachers. Support from the COVID-19 Response Fund enabled districts to buy and distribute individual hotspots or, in places like Dinwiddie County, outfitted “Smart Buses” with a Wi-Fi connection point for those without internet at home. The buses are parked in central locations so that students can visit and download lessons, instructional material and communicate with teachers.
Richmond Public Schools received $750,000 to purchase 10,000 Chromebooks for students, providing a large portion of what RPS needed starting back in the spring. Unlike some of the surrounding school districts that issue laptops to all students, Richmond’s earlier inventory only covered a third of their students.
The added benefit of supporting the school districts in this way is that the technology will continue to be used by students and teachers for years to come. However, additional support and a coordinated plan are needed to holistically address the digital divide that still exists in our region. The pandemic has led to the formation of a “Broadband Task Force” consisting of local and elected leaders, service providers, and several education foundations who are working together to attract federal dollars that can support and sustain longer-term solutions for this issue.
“With more than 5,000 students in Henrico lacking reliable internet access, this is high priority for the Henrico Education Foundation and major concern for the school district,” said Taylor, who is helping to spearhead the initiative. Heeter added, “It’s been incredible to see how many community-based and private sector partners came to the table this summer to think creatively about how to make progress on this issue.”
Since March, the Central Virginia COVID-19 Response Fund has awarded $4.8 million in grants to nearly 130 local organizations thanks to the generous contributions from foundations, corporations, and other generous donors in our region. The ongoing focus of the fund is to support those most severely affected by COVID-19 as it relates to emergency shelter, food, rental assistance, workforce re-entry support, and health. Other recent notable grants include $200,000 to the Regional Emergency Rental Assistance Fund, which helps individuals facing potential eviction remain in their homes, and $150,000 to the Richmond City Health District to support the health needs of the Latinx community, which are disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 virus.
Locally, we anticipate additional requests for school technology like Wi-Fi hotspots, laptops, and iPads for younger students. Based on pending requests and known needs, the $1.5 million remaining in the fund is likely to last through October. The Community Foundation and its partners have a goal to raise $1 million more to assist our most vulnerable neighbors through the end of the year.
If you would like to give to the Central Virginia COVID-19 Response Fund, or learn more, please visit the Community Foundation website.