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Student Solar Project Bridges Digital Divide in Rural Virginia

Student Solar Project Bridges Digital Divide in Rural Virginia

A school district in Virginia harnesses solar power to create wi-fi access throughout its county, helping to bridge its community’s digital divide and preparing its high school students for jobs in the solar energy industry.

Marcy Pennella relies on a mobile hotspot device for internet access at her home in Louisa County, Virginia. “I live surrounded by woods, so it works if it’s not cloudy or dark out,” Pennella said. 

Pennella, a kindergarten teacher, usually tries to finish her work at school. But since the start of the pandemic, she and members of her family occasionally drive five minutes away from their house to a solar-powered wi-fi station on wheels, designed and built by Louisa County Public Schools. These stations are called WOW, or Wireless on Wheels.

In one instance her older daughter needed to take a midterm but their hotspot device was too slow.  “She went to [the] WOW station and it worked really well,” Pennella said. “It was fast – no spinning or delays or anything. No login information required. And she took her midterm in 30 minutes.” 

Local Solar, Local Solutions

Photo courtesy of Louisa County Public Schools

Educators and administrators at Louisa County Public Schools had families like Pennella’s in mind when stay-at-home orders took effect at the start of the pandemic last year in March. 

“Many of our families in our community do not have internet connectivity,” said Doug Straley, Louisa County Public Schools superintendent. The county, which is 514 square miles with a population of about 37,000 people, is largely rural and about two to four years away from having fiber optic internet access across the county. 

Straley said his school district anticipated students’ need for internet access to learn from home as well as people’s need for internet access as they work from home.  

To bridge this digital divide during the pandemic, the school district set up 32 of these WOW stations throughout the county in parking lots at churches, grocery stores and any other businesses willing to share their parking lots. 

Louisa County Public Schools Superintendent Douglas Straley successfully lobbied the county’s school division to support these WOW units with local funding. Photo courtesy of Louisa County Public Schools

“At that time [in March 2020] the amount of fear and anxiety to even leave your house was so high,” said Kenny Bouwens, who directs the Career and Technical Education and STEAM and innovation programs at Louis County Public Schools. He said going to Starbucks, McDonald’s or the library for internet access was not an option. 

So Bouwens and his colleagues designed these WOW stations so that 1: wi-fi could be powered by the sun — no need to keep them plugged into an electricity source — and 2: people could feel safe accessing the internet while they stayed in their cars. 

The school district also adapted its teaching style. “A lot of that [school] work is interactive stuff you could do offline and then upload,” Bouwens said. “Students go to WOW units for maybe 10 to 15 minutes to upload their assignments, download their new assignments, and then go back home. And that was the only model that we felt would work really well at that time, with how quickly we had to transition to a virtual hybrid learning model.”