Students from area schools do their work courtesy of the upgraded Wi-Fi at First Baptist Church of High Falls. FBCHF/Special
JACKSON — Harvey Ellis noticed the family with five school-age children in the parking lot of the Sunoco gas station on High Falls Road. It was mid-August and the Monroe County School System had delayed the start of in-person instruction three weeks due to COVID-19. In order to help students learning remotely, buses equipped with Wi-Fi had been dispatched throughout the area.
Ellis, chairman of deacons at nearby First Baptist Church of High Falls, had recently suggested to Pastor Scott Chewning and others the need to upgrade the Wi-Fi capabilities for such needs. Chuck Wheeler, another member with a technology background, agreed. The addition of another router would prove to be beneficial for the 15 middle and high school students who turned the church's facilities into a temporary school for three weeks.
"The students were split among Monroe County Middle School and Mary Persons High School," said Chewning. “We were concerned about the children in our community. We know many cannot afford the internet or simply don’t have access. Some can get it, but it lacks the quality needed for streaming.”
A map by the Georgia Department of Community Affairs shows Monroe County to be among those lacking broadband access, with 52 percent of the area deemed "unserved." To meet that need, Chewning credited other churches in joining the effort alongside First Baptist, such as Maynard Baptist and Pastor Matt Bishop.
The 2020 Broadband Report released Sept. 16 by the same department (Under "Resources") pointed out the extent of the importance of internet access for students. Studies suggest that 70 percent of teachers give assignments to be completed online. Furthermore, 90 percent of high school students go online weekly to complete assignments.
However, up to 17 percent of students experience a lack of connectivity in completing their assignments, known as a "homework gap." According to Pew Research, this gap is more pronounced among Black students and those from households making less than $30,000 a year. Hispanic teens report a higher rate of having to complete homework assignments on a cell phone.
Among all U.S. teens, 12 percent reported using public Wi-Fi such as those made available by the government or groups such as First Baptist. Nine percent of Hispanic students made up that group, alongside 11 percent of White students and 21 percent of Black students.
FBCHF had a thriving Wednesday night program for children and youth before COVID-19 brought things to a halt earlier this year. Since the 60 or so children couldn't come to First Baptist, the church cranked up its busses to make deliveries. Buses on a Mission (BOM) soon hit the road to take Bible lessons and food to families.
“Many of our children would be waiting by the roadside or on the front porch,” Chewning said, “They wanted to know when we would be coming to pick them up for Wednesday night services."
The church has since opened up its doors back up. Current protocols include two services on Sunday mornings to insure social distancing, the first one specified for those 65 years and older or medically compromised. At both services masks are encouraged but not required. The facilities are disinfected twice a week by a company. Plans are to regather with one Sunday morning service on Nov. 1.
And while ministry is beginning to resemble something more familiar, Chewning is grateful the church was ready to step in when needed. Among its new visitors are those five children Ellis invited back in August.
"It was helpful for me to develop a relationship with these kids," the pastor said. "It gave them an opportunity to be in a church if they hadn't for a long time."
Christy Chewning contributed to this report.
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