By: Jolie A. Milstein and Roger W. Brandt
Special to the USA TODAY Network


The coronavirus pandemic increased the need for reliable and fast internet access and exacerbated the existing digital divide — highlighting the fact that far too many lower-income residents in communities of color lack the connectivity required to succeed in today’s virtual world.

There are signs that may soon improve, with both the state and federal governments undertaking significant efforts to invest in broadband affordability and accessibility. This is an encouraging long-term development, but many in Rochester still need short-term help. At the height of the COVID-19 crisis, when the majority of interactions — from health care appointments to education — were forced into the virtual space, Rochester residents needed better online access right away.

Enter Community Classrooms, an innovative program that repurposed underutilized space in affordable housing developments for educational use, ensuring that all students — from pre-K to college — had the safe, staffed and connected spaces in which to learn and do their homework.

In Rochester, the Community Classrooms program was made possible through a partnership between House New York Inc., the philanthropic arm of the New York State Association for Affordable Housing, which received a grant to facilitate the effort statewide from Wells Fargo; and Crown Castle, the nation’s largest provider of communications infrastructure.

The program was established in the community center at Stadium Estates I and II, owned by Cornerstone Property Managers and Charles Settlement House, which accommodated up to 10 students at a time while maintaining social distancing. Prior to the reopening, all additional public health protocols were also observed — from enhanced cleaning schedules to mask requirements.

Participants were able to reserve two-hour timeslots to ensure reliable and uninterrupted internet access in a quiet environment. A Cornerstone staff member was available to answer questions and help students troubleshoot technical problems.

The Federal Communications Commission estimates that 30 million Americans lack broadband access — though some estimates put that number far higher, and the government is endeavoring to collect more accurate data. Tens of millions Americans more are unable to afford minimum broadband service even when it is available.