Just as keeping children fed has become a central mission during the COVID-19 pandemic, so has keeping children wired to the web – where those in hybrid or home learning situations must now do their school work.

Many groups and individuals are working to make sure area students have access to the tools and technology they’ll need to succeed as the pandemic strains our educational system.

The digital divide is a factor in rural and urban districts alike, with some areas of the Cambria-Somerset region lacking sufficient WiFi service to complete tasks.

Community libraries in Somerset County are providing expanded wireless internet access with help from the Information Technology Disaster Resource Center.

As our Josh Byers reported, the nonprofit agency typically steps in following major weather events, but has extended its mission to helping kids with technology during the pandemic.

Cheryl Morgan, Somerset County library director, said the agency’s project Connect program is providing homework “hotspots” where kids can access their classroom materials.

“Individuals in various parts of the county have stepped forward to become internet connectivity champions for their immediate community,” Morgan said.

Sites adding WiFi access include Mary S. Biesecker Public Library in Somerset Borough and public libraries in Conemaugh Township and Meyersdale, she said.

Paul Bachelor, a project contractor for ITDRC, described his work as “creating a bubble around a building,” as Byers wrote, to allow for better web access.

“I just think they’re trying to make a difference in children’s lives,” he said. “No matter who you are or where you live, we’ll come help.”

Bachelor said projectConnect will shift to Cambria County next, working to enhance service in Johnstown as well as across the rural regions to the north.

Ashley Flynn, Cambria County library director, said: “One of our big missions is to extend our reach outside of the building and into the community.”

Meanwhile, Greater Johnstown School District is work-ing with the NAACP Johnstown Chapter to target neighborhoods for hotspot service.

A recent parent survey showed that 37% of Greater Johnstown families didn’t have internet access and 42% didn’t have devices to connect to the internet, Superintendent Amy Arcurio said.

The district is using Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act funds to beef up access to both tools and WiFi, she said, while partnering with community centers and churches to offer homework locations with high-speed internet.

The key will be data and tracking – to make sure no students fall behind if the virus pushes more of the learning process outside school buildings.

Sadly, the pandemic isn’t going away anytime soon.

So districts much get creative and seek outside help to keep kids on the learning path – despite the challenges of COVID-19.

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