WINCHESTER — More than six months ago, Winchester Public Schools partnered with Comcast to provide free internet to eligible households in need of the service.
The program was available for up to 500 homes starting in September, but only eight families have participated so far.
"It's very disappointing," said Matthew Peterson, executive director of the John & Janice Wyatt Foundation. The J2W Foundation has donated $20,000 toward the program.
WPS allocated $60,000 for the initiative, which covers 12 months of service for up to 500 qualified households. The federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act provided some of the funding. Opportunity Scholars also made a $5,000 donation.
About 10% of the roughly 4,300 students in WPS do not have internet access at home.
The COVID-19 pandemic has made having reliable internet as necessity for students to do their online schoolwork.
"We definitely know there's a need out there," Peterson said. "This is an asset that's available."
WPS has tried a variety of methods to let families know about the free internet service, such as social media marketing as well as help from the division's social workers, counselors and principals.
"Maybe there are barriers to entry that we don't necessarily see," said Carl Rush, WPS's equity and community engagement coordinator. "Whether it's about the paperwork to get this service."
So the division plans to try other community outreach about the initiative, such as an information session, Rush said.
He noted that a possible barrier could be that Comcast customers with past delinquent accounts cannot sign up for the program.
As a result of the pandemic and the need for students to have internet access, WPS also purchased 100 hotspots for students, of which 36 are currently in use, according to Rush. The hotspots might possibly be more popular than the free internet service because there's less paperwork involved.
"If there is anyone that has a Winchester schools student in their home, and they do not have internet, there's no reason why they shouldn't have internet," Rush said.
Peterson added that the money budgeted toward this program can be reallocated as needed if the effort to provide more internet service has to pivot in a different direction.
To qualify, a family must: be eligible for public assistance programs such as the National School Lunch Program, Medicaid, SNAP, SSI, VA Assistance or TANF; live in an area where Comcast service is available; have not subscribed to Comcast’s internet service in the last 90 days.
Rush encouraged families to apply for the program if they need it, even if there are doubts that they qualify.
"If a kid only has internet when they come to school, that's very difficult for them to be successful academically," Rush said.
Peterson said the hotspots and Comcast partnership program are short-term fixes to "get us through COVID."
Recently, Winchester City Manager Dan Hoffman said he plans to address the internet access problem, but that the community needs to be patient, because of budget constraints.
Families interested in applying for free internet service through the Comcast Internet Essentials program will need to provide a special promo code from Winchester Public Schools.
The Comcast program provides internet speeds of 25Mbps download and 3Mbps upload for a monthly fee of $9.95, which is covered through WPS, J2W Foundation and Opportunity Scholars.
To request a promo code from WPS, families need to fill out a request form online at https://bit.ly/2OPFwgt.