Supervisors eye broadband expansion as virtual school looms

By Heather Michon

The Fluvanna Board of Supervisors continued their deliberations over broadband expansion at their meeting on Wednesday (Aug. 19), a discussion made all the more urgent by the need to get more than 3,000 students ready for the start of virtual learning next month.

With Supervisor Don Weaver (Cunningham) absent for the evening, the Board voted 4-0 to approve a $45,900 request from Fluvanna County Public Schools for the purchase of 200 Verizon Wi-Fi hotspots and four months of data. These hotspots will allow families that have cell phones to access the internet. Another 50 hotspots have been donated to the county by Shentel, a regional telecommunication company.

This money will come from the $4.8 million given to the County through the Federal CARES Act.

Supervisors also voted 4-0 to take the next steps in a proposed broadband expansion plan proffered by CVEC. If it reaches final approval, the expansion will cost $520,000 in CARES funding.

Under the plan, CVEC would extend underground fiber cable for 7.4 miles along Rt. 15 from near Carybrook to the edge of Fork Union, and east along Rt. 6 from Dixie to Holmhead, including Gravel Hill Road and Davis Lane. This extension would provide access for an estimated 150 homes and businesses. CVEC would also install free Wi-Fi hotspots at county buildings and properties for public use.

Bringing Wi-Fi to underserved parts of the county has been a goal for the Board in recent years. Aside from increasing residents’ access to remote learning, telehealth, and telework, it’s a vital part of the economic development plan.

However, Finance Director Mary Anna Twisdale cautioned supervisors that, since they would be utilizing CARES funding, their decision had to be strictly based on the pandemic. “This can’t be about [developing] county assets or economic development,” she said. “The only way CARES will pay for this is if it is about virtual learning and telework.”

Along those lines, Supervisor Mozell Booker (Fork Union) raised concerns that the proposed route wouldn’t actually reach many students, arguing that many people along those corridors were retirees. “I don’t know if we’re helping the right people,” she said.

She also expressed frustration that she hadn’t been able to get information on where Fluvanna County students actually lived. “We need to make decisions based on more facts,” she said.

But with the clock ticking towards the December 30 deadline for use of CARES funding, the Rt. 15-Rt. 6 corridor was seen as the easiest and most viable route for rapid development and would give them more options for future development, and Booker voted with the majority to move forward.

Parks and Recreation Director Aaron Spitzer gave a presentation on a plan to open two to three facilities for students to access Wi-Fi for their schoolwork in the evenings.

Spitzer said they could fit between 16-20 socially distanced tables each at the Carybrook Gym, the Fluvanna County Community Center in Fork Union, and perhaps the Beaver Dam Baptist Church in Troy. Each facility would be open weeknights from 6:30-8:30.

Families would have to sign up in advance for a table, with each table holding up to two siblings and a parent. Parents and children would have a temperature check at the door and be required to wear masks at all times and use hand sanitizer before entering. Each site would be manned by one staff member and be sanitized at the end of each night.

Spitzer also outlined an outdoor gym program for children in grades 1-8 to run from Sept. 8 to Oct. 29. Each age group would have their own weekly time slot, with staff leading them through a distanced program of running, stretching, yoga, and other activities.

The program would require a temporary staff of five people part-time at a cost of $12,000.

While the program wasn’t up for a formal vote, Supervisor Booker and Supervisor Patricia Eager (Palmyra) indicated that, given the difficulties of keeping small children separate, they felt the plan was too risky. Spitzer said he would work on the plan and bring it back to the Board at a later date.

Supervisors also approved $31,000 in CARES funding for COVID-related site improvements, furniture, fixtures, and other items for the Planning Department, the new Registrar’s Office, and the Fluvanna library.

They also got their first look at what might become their new home.

A representative of the architectural firm Crabtree, Rohrbaugh & Associates showed them drawings of proposed renovations of the County Administration Building’s basement to turn it into a space for Board meetings and other county meetings.

Their usual home at the County Courthouse is closed for meetings for the foreseeable future and their current meeting space in the Morris Room holds only 10 people under social-distancing guidelines. The basement renovation would allow about 40 at a time, and up to 77 when or if restrictions are lifted.

Due to the configuration of the basement space, several supervisors found the proposed floorplan a little awkward, particularly when it comes to access for those with mobility issues. “I’m not expecting this to be a long-term solution,” said County Administration Eric Dahl, but he felt the new space would hold them over until a new administration building can be constructed near Pleasant Grove at some future point.

Supervisors approved $68,200 in CARES funding to Crabtree, Rohrbaugh & Associates to conduct the architectural and engineering plans for the space. The project would need to be fully completed by Dec. 30.

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