Pennsylvania Survey to Assess Student Internet Needs

The Pennsylvania Association of Intermediate Units and Penn State Extension are gathering data about numbers of students, household devices and Internet access that may later aid the distribution of grant funds.

Broadband connection
(TNS) — School districts across the state could benefit from a survey that collects broadband connectivity data to help determine whether families have sufficient Internet access.

The survey was created by the Pennsylvania Association of Intermediate Units and Penn State Extension as a way to help districts across the state, including those in Allegheny and Westmoreland counties, have Internet-related data readily available for use in grant applications, including those like the upcoming $7.1 billion Emergency Connectivity Fund.

"We want to get to the heart of the matter," said Gregory Koons, executive director of the Schuylkill Intermediate Unit and one of the leads on the project.

Questions on the survey center around the number of students living in a household, if every school-age child in the home has access to their own computer to participate in remote learning or to complete homework and if there is sufficient Internet access to allow multiple kids to use devices with video simultaneously.

The survey also asks for the address of the respondent to help school leaders determine where there may be pockets with no Internet access.

Once the data is collected, it will be compiled into district specific reports and sent to superintendents. Reports will include broadband maps of their jurisdictions.

Jason Conway, executive director of the Westmoreland Intermediate Unit, said the survey results can be used by state and county leaders to direct funding to necessary parts of the community. Results could help districts acquire money from the Emergency Connectivity Fund.

The fund, created by Congress in March, aims to ensure students, educators and library patrons have sufficient broadband for off-campus learning. If awarded, expenses related to laptop and tablet devices, as well as Internet access services, would be fully reimbursed with few limitations.

A 45-day application window is expected to open later this month.

The survey comes after a year in which most schools in the state implemented some form of remote learning in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. During that time, Koons noted, families may not have had the bandwidth to stream videos or have access to live lessons, forcing them to participate in offline instruction and activities.

"It comes down to students," Koons said. "We want to make sure students are connected for instructional reasons. The pandemic has taught us that, as school districts, we can provide virtual instruction and we can provide it well, but if they don't have Internet access, we're hitting a wall."

In Westmoreland County, 86.5 percent of households had a computer between 2015-19, according to census data. During that same period, 80 percent of households had a broadband Internet subscription. In Allegheny, 89 percent of households had a computer between 2015-19, while almost 84 percent had a broadband Internet subscription, data show.

The survey, which began May 20, runs through June 11. Superintendents are working with building principals to distribute a link to the survey for families. Koons noted a QR code is included on an informational flyer for families with smartphones who might not have Internet access.

©2021 The Tribune-Review (Greensburg, Pa.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.