It started with an idea suggested by Warrenton Town Councilman Sean Polster. What if, he suggested, the town was able to transform its former town hall on Court Street into an “education hub?” Students who do not have reliable Internet could use the Wi-Fi service already in place in the soon-to-be empty town hall building. Parents who need to work remotely could also make use of the available connection.
Polster broached the idea at Tuesday’s town council meeting, encouraging his fellow councilmen to get on board. Most seemed to feel it was an idea that should be explored.
Town Manager Brandi Schaeffer pointed out that town staff’s move to the new town hall on Main Street would not be complete until after school opened on Aug. 24. And she added, there were other considerations: the crescent wall and cubicle partitions would have to come down and asbestos abatement could be a concern.
Councilman Bill Semple wondered about insurance liability, but Schaeffer said that since the building has always been open to the public, that shouldn’t be a problem.
Semple also wondered about demand for such a project. “How many children would use it?” he asked.
Polster, in a conversation later, emphasized the need to “lead with a sense of urgency” during challenging times. He said he has spoken to leaders across the country and many are achieving creative innovations for their constituents. “Everybody is trying to stay inside this box of ideas. We need to think outside the box to be able to get things done quickly. The mayor of San Francisco is opening parks and rec and community centers... A town in Colorado is using commercial space in an old Sears building.”
Whether or not the old town hall proves a viable option, the concept of learning hubs is circulating in the county.
Polster has been polling other local community leaders. He said, “Chief [Mike Kochis] said that his training room could be used,” for instance. And a conversation with Fauquier County School Board member Susan Pauling was productive, he said.
Pauling was enthusiastic. “… Sean started talking about how other cities are dealing with 100% virtual learning. He spoke about learning hubs and how we could come together and start one in Warrenton. The idea would be to create a proof of concept, establish a process, and then replicate the learning hubs in other locations throughout our county.
“I absolutely support out-of-the-box thinking when approaching education this semester. There are already several parent resource pages for learning hubs popping up on Facebook. Allegro, Progressions and Warrenton United Methodist churches are also offering options for working families.
“The Warrenton Town Council has already proven they are very capable in providing creative ways of handling COVID-19 with their outdoor space use for businesses. I am thankful to know leaders like Sean and the Warrenton Town Council are willing to be a part of the solution to the crisis we are facing today.”
Polster also caught the ear of Fauquier County Supervisor Chris Granger, who raised the subject at a Thursday afternoon board of supervisor's work session. Supervisors and county staff members discussed the potential for setting up indoor spaces in public buildings as Internet-equipped workspaces for teleworking adults and students learning remotely.
“Some people are going to be able to sit at home and doing teleworking and what have you,” said Supervisor Chris Granger (Center District). “Some people, frankly, are not going to be able to do it [from home].”
County Administrator Paul McCulla responded that county staff have already begun seeking out potential buildings for this use. He mentioned the Marshall Community Center, the Central Complex, of which the Warrenton Community Center is part, and the Remington Lions Club building as possible sites. The Remington Volunteer Fire Department building, along with the old volunteer fire building in Catlett, were also listed.
McCulla said that any potential site would ideally have a fiber optic Internet connection already in place.
Supervisor Chris Butler (Lee District) asked why school cafeterias couldn’t be used as workspaces.
Supervisor Rick Gerhardt (Cedar Run District) chimed in that, with a couple exceptions, school buildings in the county “don’t have the bandwidth” to support it. He added that the fire hall in Remington is equipped with this type of connection, making it a better candidate.
Regardless, there was no indication from supervisors or staff that Internet-enabled workspaces would be established immediately.
“I don’t know if it’s going to be something that’s needed, but it’s something we should explore,” Granger concluded.
“These are all optional ideas at this point, and nothing has been discussed with any of these groups at this time,” said Deputy County Administrator Erin Kozanecki after the meeting.