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Arlington Devotes Portion of $21 Million from CARES Act to Closing Digital Gap

(Updated 1 p.m.) The County Board is directing $500,000 in federal coronavirus stimulus and recovery funding towards closing a digital divide that the pandemic has made impossible to ignore.

“Broadband connectivity is not a luxury, it is essential for households,” County Board member Christian Dorsey said.

Dorsey said the digital divide between households with broadband internet access and those without was present before COVID-19, but social distancing and the school from home has made closing that gap more urgent than ever. Ten percent of Arlington households have no internet access, either through a wired or a mobile connection, according to a presentation Tuesday afternoon.

“This will be a critical piece in ensuring students don’t fall behind simply because they don’t have sufficient family income,” Dorsey said. Arlington Public Schools has said its rationale for not teaching new material remotely during the last half of the spring semester was because of concerns about equitable access to online resources.

Some 5,000 to 8,000 families could qualify for the county’s new program, which will provide 25/3 mbs “Internet Essentials” access and will be administered by Arlington Public Schools through a contract with Comcast. Dorsey said that internet access will also be vital for many to seek employment during and after the pandemic.

The funding is a relatively small piece of the $20.66 million in CARES Act funding allocated to Arlington and aimed at supporting programs and services impacted by COVID-19.

“This will be broadband connectivity with decent download speeds and upload speeds,” Dorsey said. “There will be no necessary costs to incur for equipment to access connectivity, it will be provided through Comcast with a self-installation kit.”

Dorsey said there will be no activation or installation fees. Internet access will also be bundled with an option to purchase a computer for $149.99.

“This pandemic has made it clear that the internet should be a utility, like water and electricity, and that everyone is going to need it in this day and age,” County Board Chair Libby Garvey said.

At its meeting last night the Board also approved $400,000 for the Arlington Food Assistance Center and Arlington Thrive, the nonprofit that provides emergency cash to those in need, and allocated an additional $500,000 to Thrive for emergency assistance, including rental assistance, to residents in need.

That’s on top of another $1 million allocated to Arlington Thrive via separate federal grants, an action that was also approved last night.

CARES Act funding will also go toward the purchase of personal protective equipment, staffing for coronavirus testing sites, and hiring more public health workers, among other things.

More from a county press release, below.

The Arlington County Board today accepted and appropriated a $20.66 million federal grant to help support County programs and services affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding can also be used to cover expenses related to complying with COVID-19 public health precautions.

“This welcome and much-needed grant from the federal government will help us provide the emergency food and housing assistance that those in our community who have lost their livelihoods to the pandemic so desperately need,” Arlington County Board Chair Libby Garvey said. “It will also help close the digital divide by providing broadband internet access to APS students hampered by their lack of broadband access, pay for PPE for our frontline personnel, stand-up testing sites, hire public health workers, and more. We expect to begin using it in early June.”

The Board allocated $500,000 of the funding for a joint County/School Internet Essential Grant Program to provide broadband internet access to APS students in need. Some 5,00 to 8,000 families could qualify for the program, which will be administered by APS through a contract with Comcast.

The Board also funded prior expenditures from the Manager’s Contingent combined total of  $400,000 to the Arlington Food Assistance Center and to THRIVE, the Arlington non-profit that provides emergency cash to those in need, and allocated an additional $500,000 to THRIVE for emergency assistance, including rental assistance, to residents in need.

The remaining funding from the FY 2020 County Manager contingent will provide continued support for unanticipated funding needs through the beginning of the 2021 fiscal year, which starts July 1, 2020.

The CARES grant will help support numerous programs and services throughout Arlington, including:

  • Food assistance programs, including food banks, home-delivered food, and meal services, and grab-and-go meal programs
    Funding emergency assistance to residents
  • Buying personal protective equipment (PPE) and sanitizing products for health care workers, emergency medical responders, social workers, and other public health and safety staff
  • Establishing and staffing COVID-19 testing sites for the community
  • Hiring more public health workers
  • Facilitation of distance learning for students and improving telework capabilities of public employees

The funds can be applied to COVID-19-related costs incurred from March 1 – December 30, 2020.

The Board voted 4 to 0 to accept and appropriate the funding.

Images via Arlington County

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