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Milford School District votes unanimously to allow fall sports

Milford School District Board of Education voted six to zero Monday night to allow fall sports.

Practices and pre-season games for soccer, cross country, football and field hockey, which will all play shortened seasons, can begin on Monday, Sept. 28. All the seasons will end in December.

During the meeting, parents argued that students needed to be playing and be together, not glued to computer or television screens. Parents and coaches argued that if Milford didn’t allow sport, students would leave the system to go to one that did allow sports.

“This is about what is doing what is best for our kids,” Sherry Geesaman said during the meeting’s public comment section. “Getting our kids back out on the field and playing is absolutely the best thing for our kids. Not being in the classroom is not best for our kids. Getting 90 minutes of your core education each day is not best for our kids. Not being with classmates is not best for our kids.”

All Delaware school districts will be dealing with the same issue, because a cascade of events at state level puts the issue back in their laps.

In August, the Delaware Interscholastic Athletic Association cited state rules that said sports were not safe and pushed fall sports into seasons between winter and springs sports.

Then this month, the Delaware Division of Public Health reversed its stand against playing sports by issuing guidelines for playing fall sports that included masks for all athletes, even football players and wrestlers. Gov. John Carney, who had been saying he couldn’t imagine how kids could play football with masks and safety precautions, then urged the DIAA to reconsider its rules. DIAA did, voting for shortened seasons.

But that sent the issue to the Delaware Department of Education Board, who on Sept. 17 voted 4-3 to allow fall sports. The hours-long discussion often focused on issues of equity. They included why the board should allow sports, but not allow other student activities such as marching band, choirs, theatre and various clubs. They also included what would happen if one system decided to allow sports and another didn’t. Several board members and speakers referred to six districts already saying they would not play sports.

The board’s decisions means individual districts have to decide whether to offer fall sports.

While Geesaman supported sports in Milford, she supported a lot more: “I am all for kids playing sports but we need them back in the classroom as soon as possible.”

Jack Frederick, the parent of four Milford School District students, said he was concerned that if Milford voted not to have sports, students would transfer to neighboring districts that did choose to play this fall. He believed that the ripple effect could last for years.

Milford High athletics director Ryan Winkleblech told the board that the school did have practices over the summer for five different teams.

“We followed a process, we had a check list and we did temperature checks,” Winkleblech said. “We documented all the information and I must submit that at the end of each week.

“Our kids are rising to the occasion. They are taking this seriously. We have scheduled our volleyball, soccer and field hockey games so that we can avoid having more than two competitions at one site.”

Cross country head coach Lance Skinner, who is also president of Milford Little League, said his organization was the only one south of Middletown to hold games over the summer.

“It went off without a hitch,” Skinner said. “Everyone took it seriously. Everyone followed the guidelines and it went fine. All the kids who have returned for cross country are very excited, but they are taking it all seriously.

“They are wearing masks, they are dealing with the pre-practice check-ins. They are social distancing. As they enter the field, the must use hand sanitizer and wear a mask. Once the race starts, they can remove the mask, but it must be placed back on as they leave the track.”

Andrea McPike, the Buccaneers’ field hockey coach, agreed with Skinner. Each girl is compliant no matter what is asked of them, McPike stated. They arrive 30 minutes before practice with masks on. The girls must respond to the same checklist as other sports and have their temperature checked.

“There is a fence around the field that has poles that are eight feet apart,” McPike said. “Each girl is assigned one of those poles where they place all their gear. They must use hand sanitizer as they enter the field. During practice, they are required to wear masks.

“We take a short break where the girls can go to the pole, get a drink of water from a bottle they bring themselves. We sanitize the ball if it is touched. We wipe down cones. The girls are not hesitating to do anything we ask so that they can play field hockey.”

Todd French, who has been coaching soccer at Milford for over 13 years, supported Frederick’s concerns that if Milford did not have fall sports, students would leave the district for those who did have them.

“I have 13 very talented seniors,” French said. “They have been looking forward to this season for a long time and they knew that if they slipped up and did not do the right thing, they could cost the whole team and possibly the school. They felt like they should lead the way.

“I am concerned that if we decide not to have fall sports, I will have to push some of my very talented kids to another school. These kids have college scholarships on the line. That is just how it is in sports and I would hate to see that happen.”

Board member Jean Wylie asked about transportation to and from games.

Superintendent Dr. Kevin Dickerson explained that each bus was limited to 25 students and that drivers would follow the same protocols as they did for summer school. One of the DIAA board members said during their meeting this month that the sports groups need to push the Department of Public Health to change the bus rules for sports teams.

Athletics director Winkleblech said some teams may need to take two buses. Dickerson said spectators are limited to no more than one per student and that he expected that would remain throughout the season.

“As it is, we can only have 250 people if we get that approved by the state like we did for graduation,” Dickerson said. “We are looking at this as a conference because we want it to be uniform. If there are changes, we will keep the board informed.”

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State will spend $20 million to expand internet service

Delaware is putting $20 million into expanding internet access for people.

The state of Delaware will put $20 million into expanding internet broadband service in Delaware, giving low-income families vouchers for service and creating a pool of cash that established vendors can use to expand into difficult areas.

The state also wants people across Delaware to help them test internet speed, by testing the own service speed of their own computers and cell phones at www.SpeedSurvey.Delaware.gov or by calling 302-739-9701.

The new programs will be paid for with money from the state’s nearly $1 billion share of the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

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The initiatives are designed partly to help ensure students who must study remotely have the broadband service their laptops and tablets need. Many of them will start school this fall at home because of the virus.

State Rep. Ruth Briggs King (R-Georgetown) was delighted to hear the state announcement Monday. She’s been trying to improve internet access in Sussex County for a decade.

“COVID has thrown this issue to the forefront,” Briggs King said. “I’m sorry it took this to get the attention that should have been there a long time ago, but at least you can say there was one good thing to come out of COVID.”

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James Collins, Delaware’s chief information officer with the Delaware Department of Technology and Information, agrees.

“One bright spot in this whole pandemic emergency is that broadband expansion is getting accelerated to help people thrive in a digital world,” Collins said in an interview.

Problems with internet access fall into two categories: access and affordability, he said.

Several areas of the state, mostly in Kent and Sussex counties, are considered broadband deserts. Because there’s fewer people spread over the real estate there, companies don’t think they can make money after the costs of installing service.

The state already had started tackling that with its Rural Wireless Broadband Initiative That program contracted with Bloosurf to attach its equipment to existing towers that had fiber optic service in Kent and Sussex counties. A spot like that can cost $3,600 a month to lease, Sussex County officials have said.

That equipment can broadcast a wireless signal for about 10 miles, Collins said. When a client signs up, a transmitter is installed in or near their home. That transmitter sends a signal into a router in the home, where devices can be connected.

The service expansion process is near its end, with two new towers coming online this week. When the $2 million deal is complete in weeks, the state expects to have helped service emanating from 15 towers. Collins said the state’s investment has resulted in a $30 million private industry investment.

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“At this stage in 2020, broadband is essential,” Collins said during the press conference. “It’s as essential as any other public utility like water and electric coming to our home.”

Not only do students need internet access, he said, it’s needed for employees working from home, personal banking, other business needs, government work, telemedicine and even accessing government sites for help, he said.

Soon, he said, Delawareans are going to need faster service, consistently in the range of 100 to 150 megabits per second, which is a measure of how fast information can move. There’s a lot of talk about 5G service, which will be delivered by major cellular companies such as Verizon, he said.

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Services like that usually start in high-population metro areas.

“We can’t sit around and wait for it,” he said. “A kid could go from elementary school all the way through high school during that time period.”

The rural program was expected to wind up at the end of 2020, but now will be finished soon, Collins said.

The state Department of Education, too, has been investing in broadband service. While $40 million in CARES bucks came to schools, only $4 million stayed with the DOE. The rest went to individual systems, many of which used part of it to buy devices for students who didn’t have one.

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When the lack of internet service began apparent, the Department of Education paid $566,000 to help spread service — $252,000 to speed up the rural expansion with towers and $314,000 to sign up 250 households per month in unserved areas. The department also is spending $934,000 to pay for installation and the first three months of service for 3,500 low-income households with students.

“This is an investment that is going to continue to serve Delawareans long after the pandemic,” said Susan Bunting, secretary of the Delaware Department of Education during the press conference.

Schools had tried to help in the spring help by offering wi-fi in their parking lots or helping with hot spots at home. Those were not sustainable solutions, she said.

In Woodbridge School District, more than 30 percent of families didn’t have internet service in the spring, said Elyse Baerga, supervisor of student services, during the press conference.

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Service from the new towers is expected to cost customers $60 to $80 a month, Collins said.

All of the money going to the rural program means that 1,500 families are expected to be served when it’s completed. Last month, Sussex County officials said 200 households there had service from the new system.

The state plans to use the bulk of the new $20 million program — $13.6 million — to buy broadband service in bulk and offer it to low-income families around the state at discounts. That initiative will require working with schools districts and the Delaware Department of Health and Social Services to create the applications. Details will be announced soon, the state said.

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The way those vouchers are being worked out is complicated because of how family incomes are derived, a technology and information spokesman said. It’s also complicated because so many services provide internet access — Comcast, Verizon, ATT and others — and the program needs to be designed so each can be included.

The grants are expected to cover 15 months of service because the CARES money is only for things affected by COVID-19, Collins said. The state had to guess how long that impact would last, he said.

The state also make $5.9 million available for companies that want to spread into some areas, but have found it too expensive so far. Collins called those projects “shovel ready expansion.”

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Briggs King is happy to see a significant amount of money devoted to the broadband issue.

“We would get a little bit here and a little bit there,” she said. As a new legislator, she tried introducing a bill that would give internet companies a tax break, but the companies said it wouldn’t help.

“I’m delighted to see the focus and the funds be in the same place, but I still have questions about how it’s really going to work,” she said.

She lives just outside Georgetown and didn’t have strong enough internet to attend online sessions of the Legislature through Zoom. She had to go to her office in Georgetown to participate.

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Other issues keep popping up, too.

Her own son is one of the people she knows who applied for the new Broadband service and was told they would have to install a 60-foot pole for a transmitter, because trees were blocking the signal. The pole has to be installed by professionals and costs thousands.

Collins, who called the pole a mast, said he hoped the new program will include financial help for people in that situation.

Ultimately, Collins said, the state wants to make sure every part of Delaware has reliable, quick internet service. But before it can do that, it has to have as much specific “granular” information as possible about service now.

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Delaware residents can help by dialing into the Speed Survey with both their computers and their cell phones. It’s not necesssary to dial in with a tablet or other device, Collins said, because they work off the same wi-fi that your computer does.

With the information the survey gleans, he said, the state will know better where to invest in all service to make it quicker.

To learn more about Delaware’s broadband efforts, please visit www.broadband.delaware.gov.