Among the keys to lifting Virginia’s economy from the coronavirus pandemic: increased broadband access across the commonwealth and higher education partnerships with communities, nonprofits, and other universities and colleges.

Those were some of the points emphasized by panelists during the first Vibrant Virginia Virtual Summit. Organized by the Office of Economic Development, the forum examined Virginia’s economic recovery as well as higher education’s response and role in that recovery.

President Tim Sands and Executive Vice President and Provost Cyril Clarke helped introduce the forum, which was moderated by Vice President for Outreach and International Affairs Guru Ghosh. Panelists included Thomas Barkin, president and CEO of the Richmond Federal Reserve Bank, and Stephen Moret, president and CEO of the Virginia Economic Development Partnership, as well as higher education leaders from across Virginia.

Panelists discussed the effectiveness of teleworking in both business and education settings, which has encouraged leaders in Virginia to expand capacity for distance learning and teleworking by upgrading technology, regulations, bandwidth, and access.

“I would say every smaller town requires technology to make it operational. As so many kids have been sent home, it is becoming incredibly clear the power, the value, and necessity of the utility of broadband,” Barkin said.

The current situation has shown that reliable access to broadband internet is essential for work, education, social connectivity, and health care, as well as higher education, Moret said.

Obstacles to widespread access include the amount of money available and political resistance. While Virginia state leaders have embraced broadband, the pandemic has paused state spending, and it will be seven to eight years before residents across the commonwealth have near-ubiquitous access.

“We have found that Southwest Virginia has reinvested heavily in broadband. That has really helped our region to move forward. We’re still trying to get that last mile in place, which would be extremely helpful as schools have gone to online. I know the commonwealth is very interested in making that happen,” said Donna Henry, chancellor of the University of Virginia’s College at Wise.

Despite gains in employment over the past month, the economic fallout from COVID-19 has negatively affected many parts of the nation and revealed both economic and racial disparities in America.

Black Americans, particularly black women, saw unemployment increase; small businesses are struggling; and tourism, international trade, and energy sectors have been hit the hardest.

“It is not so much the distance between the urban and rural locations, it is in fact the distance between the individual Virginian and the opportunity and access to education, to health care, to economic activity, and to justice,” Clarke said.

Sands said that as Virginia reopens, rebuilds, and rethinks its approach to education, economic resilience, and growth, “we have an opportunity and an obligation to include all parts of the commonwealth to ensure a more prosperous and resilient future.”

Moret said that states and localities should receive additional support from the federal government to avoid more layoffs and cuts to higher education.

Christy McFarland, director of research for the National League of Cities, said, “In particular, we’re seeing that one of the key ways state and local governments are responding to fiscal stress is to pull back on capital and infrastructure projects, which will have ramifications for broader economic recovery, particularly when it comes to securing urban and rural parts of the state.”

The leaders of James Madison University, Marymount University, the University of Virginia’s College at Wise, and Virginia Western Community College said that along with creating certification programs to assist students, they are continuing to invest in partnerships that will contribute to the economy and help students in the job market.

“Our most important national resource as we seek to recover and prosper is the potential brainpower of our diverse population. That talent production is going to be key as we work together,” said Jon Alger, president of James Madison University.

“With the Vibrant Virginia program, we are committed to continuing our collaborations with universities and communities and building a more economically prosperous Virginia,” said John Provo, Director of the Office of Economic Development, which is part of Outreach and International Affairs.

The next Vibrant Virginia Virtual Summit will take place in August. Currently, a Vibrant Virginia book is in the works, and includes chapters by Moret and McFarland.

Written by Julia Kell