Unplugged: Overcoming the Digital Divide

Unplugged Overcoming the Digital Divide

As our homes have transformed into our offices, daycare centers, and classrooms, it can feel difficult to disconnect from the all-pervasive technology that creeps into every aspect of life. But while most of us are on our devices 24/7 to get work done quickly and efficiently, it’s easy to take for granted that thirty years after the debut of the World Wide Web, some families are still unplugged, putting some kids at a direct disadvantage when it’s time to log on for a Zoom lesson or turn in a research paper.

According to the most recent federal data, about 14% of households with school-age children do not have internet access.

Most of those are in households that make less than $50,000 a year, and many live in rural areas.

Among those who do have access, not all have a broadband connection. Specifically here in New York, the COVID-19 pandemic has put a spotlight on the need to address digital equity. So how are districts coping with the wide technology gap that exists in some households, with remote or hybrid school schedules? Below we’ll explore options you can take advantage of to help all of your students succeed, in 2021.

Two key factors play into measuring the divide between those who have sufficient internet availability and those who do not: access and affordability.

In comparison with the other fifty states, New York is the second most well-connected state in the US. Overall, counties throughout New York State are fairly evenly connected, with the exception of Hamilton County, which has significantly lower coverage than the rest. In New York, the current average state-wide download speed is 190.5 Mbps (bits per second), according to the independent broadband availability data collector, broadbandnow.

As for accessibility, there are currently 307,000 New York residents who do not have access to a wired internet option capable of 25 Mbps download speeds. Download speeds less than 25 Mbps are too slow to be considered broadband and with these speeds, users may experience connectivity issues like buffering when streaming video or difficulty connecting multiple devices. Additionally, 112,000 New Yorkers have no wired internet services available at home, causing enormous disruption for remote-learning environments.

Affordability data from Q4, 2019 reveals that 70% (13.7 million people) have access to a wired internet plan that costs $60 or less per month. In this regard, New York State is well ahead of the nationwide statistics, which show that only 51.5% of consumers have access to the same. But what about those who can’t afford the cost? As thousands of students are expected to keep up with the curriculum remotely or with hybrid schedules, how can you help to level the playing field? Below are a few statewide funding resources to consider:

  • The Smart School Bond Act (SSBA) provides funding for district technology and community connectivity projects.
    • The Community Connectivity category involves partnerships between school districts and communities. It could, for example, be used to supply Wi-Fi access points or computing devices to public libraries or community centers.
  • The Broadband for All program is awarding $500 million in grant funding to support projects that deliver high-speed Internet access to Unserved and Underserved areas of the State.
  • The FCC’s Lifeline program provides low-income families with a monthly discount of up to $9.25 on a phone or broadband service.
  • Additional resources include:

While not all broadband, high-speed internet connections are made equal, it’s clear there is a connection between academic success and internet access. We hope the resources above can be a jumping-off point for your administrators to ensure no child is left behind because of digital inequality. As always, our dedicated team is committed to keeping you informed and providing helpful resources to your educators as you shape the next generation of New Yorkers. Want to connect? Contact us today.

4 Steps to Help Small Businesses Succeed

4 Steps to Help Small Businesses Succeed

While local municipalities can’t provide the level of financial relief to small businesses that the US Treasury can, local officials can take strategic actions to improve the survival odds for local businesses. Below are some ideas for you to help your community succeed amidst the ongoing obstacles and pressure of the pandemic.

Promote your local businesses

Promote local businesses by publicizing open stores with street signs or offering free digital downloads to help businesses market effectively. Encourage residents to shop locally by linking store sites to virtual town hall meetings. Orange County Executive Steven Neuhaus teamed up with the Orange County Department of Tourism to remind community members of the power of keeping their dollars local. In a Small Business Saturday promotion, officials pointed out that for every $100 spent locally, $73 stays in the Orange County economy. Your local government can continue to support struggling businesses by helping to make connections through webinars and networking.

Create a central, online resource to distribute information

Be a source of information to your business community by creating a simple, user-friendly digital one-stop shop for resources, tools, and information. One shining example is Dutchess County’s Youtube channel which regularly releases videos featuring County Executive Marcus Molinaro and various health officials and guests. We recommend you designate a staff member to update your site daily with relevant local, state and federal news, as well as guidance on how businesses can apply for SBA loans, and how to contact local SBA-approved lenders or other business support organizations. On Monday, the SBA re-opened the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) to small businesses who have not already obtained a PPP loan. Today, the program will reopen for small businesses who have drawn a PPP loan in the first stage of the program. The PPP has been expanded to be more accessible and flexible for businesses, seasonal employees, nonprofits – including 501(c)(6)s, housing cooperatives, and direct marketing organizations. The loans can now cover operating expenses, property damage costs, supplier costs, and worker protection costs. Your guidance for local businesses could be the difference between a thriving downtown and more boarded up storefronts in 2021.

Team up with others to support the community

Consider forming a centralized Covid-19 donation and relief center to provide bridge funding to struggling small businesses and families. Some cities are partnering with nonprofits to create a lifeline for low-income families who have lost income due to pandemic hardships, like the City of Kingston in Ulster County. Kingston partnered with the Rural Ulster Preservation Company (RUPCO) to provide up to $3,000 in rental assistance over three months for dozens of households that submitted to a lottery. Selected applicants will be notified later this week, and local officials describe this effort as crucial to protecting residents against eviction. Municipalities can get creative with funding through a combination of local resources, philanthropic dollars, or by redeploying Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds to small businesses.

Gather data to make the case for funding

Collecting relevant local business data can help inform your municipality’s future budgets as well as your approach to state and federal advocacy. For example, Sullivan County has partnered with the County Visitors Association, chamber of commerce, and two economic development agencies to form a Recovery Working Group that has sent out needs assessment surveys to all of their member businesses. The group aims to use this data to help streamline business’s access to capital and make a unified case for support to the state and federal governments. If you haven’t already gathered data that’s unique to your community, now is the time to start asking questions and recording information. Some ideas include:

“What is the risk of your going out of business?”                                                            

“What areas of your business are you most concerned about?”                                                  

“How many employees do you estimate you will have to lay off?”

In this overwhelming time, businesses need reliable sources of information to help them navigate financial assistance and survive so your local economy can thrive. We hope these ideas will inspire new initiatives to further support the businesses that are unique to Hudson Valley. As you support your communities, we are here to support you. Contact our dedicated team today and get answers to financial questions with a free consultative appointment.

Sources: NLC, ICMA, ELGL

Community College Crisis: Enrollment Challenges

Community College Crisis: Enrollment Challenges

In many economic downturns, cost-conscious families turn to more financially feasible options. With the average cost of college enrollment now climbing over $41,000 a year, community college is an accessible alternative, especially as travel restrictions mean more young people staying closer to home. But new research released in December 2020 reveals startling statistics, and an alarming trend for community colleges, as higher education institutions around the country grapple with the ongoing challenges the pandemic presents. Across the country, postsecondary enrollments declined 2.5% in fall 2020, nearly twice the rate of enrollment decline reported in fall 2019. But even more striking is the decline in community college enrollment – a 21% enrollment decrease on average, falling at a rate almost 20 times higher than pre-pandemic decline. The statewide drop New York is experiencing means community colleges need to get creative to appeal to students.

Creative Recruiting

Traditionally, the college application process can be a major source of stress for students. But with fewer students opting to pursue higher education some schools like Clinton Community College (CCC), are going after students to boost engagement. The Albany Times Union reports that if CCC gets federal approval, it will launch a program that would allow inmates at nearby Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora to take classes remotely. This would offset the community college’s loss of about 45% of its student enrollment over the last decade. They’re not alone in needing to fill class spots. New York’s 64-campus State University system opened this semester with 5.7% fewer students than it had one year ago according to data released by SUNY administrators. Several campuses offering graduate programs have seen a significant drop of 20% in the number of international students they attract. The statewide drop has been paced by a decline of some 10% in enrollments at SUNY’s community colleges. Expanding outreach and offering remote access to nontraditional groups is one creative option to offset costs and create sustainable growth in the coming years.

Keep Connected

Without in-person events, campus tours, or high school counseling sessions, students can start to feel disconnected from their education path. The National College Attainable Network suggests the administration should continue contact with students from the class of 2021 regularly so kids know where to turn when they need support. That means keeping email addresses, phone numbers, and other communications avenues updated so that as opportunities to get back on a postsecondary pathway arise, students can stay in the know. Additionally, the NCAN recommends adding more postsecondary on-ramps for the class of 2021. That might look like increasing support for national service programs like AmeriCorps and strengthening the college and career readiness programming they provide. Did you know that parents are the top influencer when it comes to students’ enrollment decisions? Students who provide parent contact information permitting schools to contact parents directly are 53% more likely to submit a college application according to EAB data.

Unfortunately, even in a pre-pandemic world, community colleges were facing challenges. A survey of college and university admissions directors completed by Inside Higher Ed revealed that 84% of community colleges have seen enrollment declines over the past two years. The implications of this new “lost class” are expected to be felt on a wide basis as young adults enter the workforce out of high school. While some are opting to take a gap year and resume education when in-person learning resumes, research shows students who delay enrollment are 64% less likely than their “on-time” peers to complete a bachelor’s degree and 18% less likely to complete any college credential. As we begin to feel the impact of the rollout and distribution of Covid-19 vaccines, a return to normalcy is on the horizon. Student outreach is the most important part of the next few months to increase awareness and encourage enrollment.

How Solid is Your Safety Plan?

How Solid is Your Plan?

A year ago, it would be incomprehensible to imagine a time where local family-friendly traditions like attending a holiday concert or a crowded community tree lighting could pose a public health threat to us, but as challenging as it is to accept that we still need to operate under pandemic rules, alternatives are out there. From drive-by holiday light displays to virtual viewings of The New Paltz Ballet Theatre’s The Nutcracker, local government needs to keep communities informed to maintain morale and stay virtually connected. As the holiday season continues with Hanukkah celebrations in full swing and Christmas just around the corner, more opportunities to get together and a boost to interstate travel, unfortunately, mean more risk to contract Covid-19. Right now, Covid-19 community spread persists as a growing problem within Hudson Valley neighborhoods, and many local leaders are contracting the virus themselves, while others are leaving their positions entirely. An alarming new investigation from The Associated Press finds one in 8 Americans — 40 million people — lives in a community that has lost its local public health department leader during the pandemic. Top public health officials in 20 states have left state-level departments, including in New York, which has lost three state health officers since May, one after another. The study found many of the state and local officials left due to political blowback or pandemic pressure. Some departed to take higher-profile positions or due to health concerns. Others were fired for poor performance. Dozens retired. As community members struggle to know how to handle the pandemic this winter, a shrinking local government needs to remain diligent and revisit safety plans.

Practice what you preach.

Local government officials should be mindful of their actions and the actions of their team members. It’s important to lead by example and ensure that your team is following the rules you’re enforcing. California Governor Gavin Newsom recently came under fire after being photographed at large formal dinners and gatherings, mask-less and ditching the same social distancing protocols that he is enforcing statewide. Regardless of your status as a public figure, your team must practice the same consideration as you instruct your constituents to follow. Check in with team members regularly to make sure everyone is aware of the latest regulations and safety recommendations.

Stay social, while social distancing.

Some local leaders are using the power of social media to get their message out and create an open dialogue with the families they serve. Orange County Executive Steven M. Neuhaus is teaming up with The Patrick M. D’Aliso Foundation to raise awareness about suicide prevention and mental health every Monday and Thursday. As part of a new awareness and outreach initiative, “Orange Cares,” asks residents to write letters of appreciation to Orange County’s doctors, nurses, first responders, medical administrative staff, and those in nursing homes or hospitals during this holiday season. Ulster County Executive Pat Ryan took to Facebook to share vaccination updates in his Thursday briefing, detailing that the county health department and CVS pharmacies would be in charge of distributing vaccines to the county’s nursing homes. Communication and consistent community outreach are key while we are all staying safe, apart. While your team may be operating remotely, don’t neglect to update your website or social media sites to keep community members informed.

Quarantine fatigue is a real issue that’s driving people out of their homes and into unsafe social settings.

After months of fluctuating levels of lockdown, some are letting their guard down, not adhering to social distancing measures or diligent mask-wearing, leading to heightened infection rates and spikes in new positive cases within the Hudson Valley. Orange, Dutchess, Ulster, and Putnam county leaders held a joint Zoom press conference in late November, focusing on managing risk and revamping safety measures – an accessible plan that could be extremely effective if it was coordinated regularly. As positivity rates and hospitalization rates continue to increase, New York is recalibrating protocols with a new Winter Plan based on the most recent public health data. Click here to stay up to date with the new metrics for determining color zone designations. Whether it concerns accounting, out-sourcing or compliance issues, you can contact RBT’s dedicated team for help navigating this challenging time.

Who’s Getting the First Covid-19 Vaccines in NY: What to Know

First Covid-19 Vaccine

Hope is on the horizon for the healthcare heroes that have exhausted resources including their teams of staff for the past eight months, as the pandemic drags on.

Finally, the beginning of the end is in sight, and Governor Andrew Cuomo plans on giving vaccination priority to nursing home residents and health care workers, as he follows the recommendation set out by The Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices. New York expects to receive 170,000 doses of a Covid-19 vaccine produced by Pfizer and BioNTech by December 15. Ultimately, distribution depends on authorization by the Food and Drug Administration, and a tentative FDA advisory committee meeting is scheduled for December 10. The vaccine requires each person to receive two doses, and according to Cuomo, New York expects to obtain another 170,000 doses within 21 days to meet that requirement.

Few industries have felt the full wrath of the Covid-19 pandemic like those who operate within the assisted living and nursing home world.

While 6% of U.S. cases have occurred in long-term care facilities, deaths related to Covid-19 in these facilities account for roughly 40% of the country’s pandemic fatalities. Teams have spent the last eight months balancing staff safety with high-risk patients, the adoption of new procedures and the added costs associated with mandated Covid-19 testing requirements. Even before the pandemic, recruiting and retaining qualified skilled workers was a growing challenge across the state. The American Health Care Association and National Center for Assisted Living (AHCA/NCAL) released an updated report revealing that U.S. nursing homes have experienced the worst outbreak of weekly new cases since last spring due to community spread among the general population, surpassing previous peaks since the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) started tracking cases in nursing homes. While federal and state government agencies have stepped in to mitigate the impact of the virus, many staff members are left feeling completely overwhelmed nearly a year into dealing with the loss and strain caused by the pandemic. The news of the pending Covid-19 vaccinations comes as a welcome glimmer of healing as we approach 2021. So, if you are a healthcare worker, when can you realistically expect to be vaccinated?

According to New York’s draft vaccination plan released in October, there are approximately more than 800,000 critical health care workers in hospitals, long term care facilities (LTCFs), emergency medical services, and home care, and approximately 83,000 LTCF residents will be targeted during the initial phase of limited vaccine supply. This means based on available dosages, over 700,000 nursing home residents will miss out on initial vaccinations but will be next in line. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced a pharmacy partnership with CVS and Walgreens entitled the Pharmacy Partnership for Long-Term Care Program to offer on-site vaccination services for residents and staff of nursing homes and assisted living facilities. The program will provide the vaccines, on-site vaccination of residents, and end-to-end management of the COVID-19 vaccination process, including storage, handling, cold chain management, and fulfillment of reporting requirements, at no cost to the facility. For more information about vaccine training and the latest reference materials for healthcare professionals, please visit this site.

Learning Legal Liability: Covid-19 Risks

Students Wearing Masks in Class

Even if science was your favorite subject in school, it’s hard to keep track of the constantly updating Covid-19 statistics and charts.

And as science class taught us, there is a flurry of factors that can ultimately contribute to you being exposed to or contracting a contagious virus like Covid-19. For school district officials, trying to navigate and effectively implement safety protocol can be extremely daunting. Maybe your school district is fully remote or phasing back into hybrid learning. Perhaps students and parents are signing attendance waivers based on what works for their family. Or if you’re in Manhattan, maybe your school is one that resumed full-time in-person learning at the start of this week. Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza said not only are masks, proper disinfecting, and PPE continuing to be enforced but additionally, students must have signed testing consent forms on file to allow their in-person participation. But with policies, procedures, and infection rates constantly fluctuating, many New York officials and local school board member’s heads are spinning. What legal liabilities surround reopening school doors, and how can you be prepared?

Our schools are a second home for kids of all ages, providing crucial socialization, emotional and educational support, nutritious meals, and physical fitness opportunities.

While districts are taking steps to mitigate the risk of Covid-19 spread, some students and faculty are bound to come in contact with an infected individual, either in or outside of the classroom. It’s challenging to pinpoint in-person learning as the main culprit, but schools are already facing legal challenges from parents. While each case is unique in circumstance, it’s important to stay vigilant and protected. Most school districts have general liability insurance, which does not cover communicable diseases like Covid-19. Individual states offer some immunity defenses that could shield schools from lawsuits, but, according to Loretta Worters of the Insurance Information Institute, there’s nothing clear-cut about how it would apply to the coronavirus. As a result, some insurers are offering riders on policies to extend liability coverage for the virus — at an additional cost. Some school districts opting for extended coverage will pay between $5,000 and $150,000 for the added protection. Some lawmakers are advocating to protect schools from being targeted, including New York Assemblywoman Marjorie Byrnes, R-Caledonia, who has introduced A.11025 in the Assembly. It states that in-person schools will not be liable for damages if someone contracts Covid-19 as long as they are compliant with state reopening guidelines outlined by the state Education and Health departments, as well as guidelines from Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office. The National School Boards Association; AASA, The School Superintendents Association; the Association of Educational Service Associations; and the Association of School Business Officials International are lobbying federal lawmakers to include “targeted liability coverage” in a potential second Covid-19 stimulus bill.

Before you turn to increasing insurance options or shy away from resuming in-person classes, you can take smart safety steps.

Host weekly briefings so faculty can voice concerns or share safety tips, and everyone can stay informed on the latest local data tracking Covid-19 outbreaks in your community. Regularly reevaluate policies and procedures to protect your students and staff, and communicate to parents about changing plans with written documentation, to ensure you are following recommended safety measures. As you know, there is no one size fits all answer. Each district needs to follow local and state guidelines as virus infection rates and hospitalization rates fluctuate. If officials are acting reasonably and taking smart, calculated measures to ensure safety, districts will be set up for success and continued community support. We recommend visiting the CDC’s website plan and response section covering school reopening indicators here. Want to discuss your school’s safety strategy? Contact our dedicated team members today.

Hectic Holiday Headache for Higher Education

College Students with Masks

This Thanksgiving break week, students will honor the longstanding tradition of packing up their laptops, books and duffle bags and heading home by carpool, bus or plane.

From loud, bustling arenas of study and socializing, campuses will transform into quiet and empty dorms, cafeteria halls and libraries. Students will look forward to swapping their go-to staples like Cup O’Noodles and energy drinks with a home cooked turkey dinner. The main difference? While it’s typical for students to return to school between Thanksgiving and winter break, many schools are forbidding it, to curb the spread of Covid-19. While there is no singular approach, let’s consider what experts recommend and explore some of the ways New York campuses are handling this crucial decision.

More colleges have altered their fall instructional plans in the last week than at any time since August.

According to Inside Higher Ed’s database and map of changes in colleges’ fall reopening plans. That’s likely because according to the CDC, more than 1 million new Covid-19 cases were reported in the US over the past seven days. Unsurprisingly, college campuses have emerged as hotbeds of infection, accounting for more than 252,000 infections and at least 80 known deaths. The primary concern is that asymptomatic students may unknowingly carry the virus home over the holiday, putting families in a precarious position – as many colleges are opting to require students to leave campus before Thanksgiving and not return until winter break ends. Instead of resuming hybrid or in-person lessons, many students across New York will partake in 100% remote learning and complete finals from home.

In a recent brief, the American College Health Association issued some advice to colleges that will continue in-person instruction after Thanksgiving break.

ACHA advises in-person institutions to encourage students to stay on campus over the holiday rather than traveling to and from their neighborhoods, which creates unnecessary risk for increased Covid-19 transmission. Alternatively, they suggest students hold virtual celebrations with family and opt to hold a “Friendsgiving” with other students in their close circles.

We would like to highlight one exceptionally coordinated effort we believe other universities could successfully model:

State University of New York (SUNY) schools will now require “all students using on-campus facilities in any capacity” to test negative for the virus within 10 days of their departure, and to quarantine according to county health rules if they test positive, whether they are on or off-campus. The plan will entail testing about 140,000 students at SUNY’s 64 colleges and universities. In a press release explaining the strategy, SUNY Chancellor Jim Malatras describes the move as sensible. “By requiring all students to test negative before leaving, we are implementing a smart, sensible policy that protects students’ families and hometown communities and drastically reduces the chances of COVID-19 community spread,” said Malatras.

Because very few campus decisions are coordinated statewide, there is an expectation that communities across New York will experience a challenging spike in Covid-19 cases over the next 10 day period.

Regardless of how your institution plans on operating over the next several weeks, officials should make campus accommodations available for those who do not wish to travel home. Additionally, we recommend the latest CDC guidelines be made immediately available for students, and that staff should offer ample supportive resources to promote student mental health wellness.