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State Capitol Week in Review – July 31, 2020

LITTLE ROCK – The state Education Department will spend $10 million to expand Internet access in every school district in Arkansas.

Many parents may keep their children at home during the upcoming school year because of concerns about the spread of Covid-19. Some students may be required to study from home in “virtual” classrooms if there is an outbreak of the virus at their schools.

In that event, the digital divide between low-income families and prosperous families will become even more severe. Students will be more likely to fall behind academically if they have no access to reliable, high speed Internet, or if they only have antiquated mobile devices and computers.

The Education Department will buy up to 20,000 devices and allocate them to schools based on enrollment. School officials will then distribute them to students who need them.

Educators and elected officials say that it is especially important to equalize access to the Internet in rural areas, whether students attend classes on campus or stay home and study in “virtual” classrooms.

More students will be able to work from home to do projects that require Internet access, rather than having to sit at a restaurant or business that offers free wireless. A superintendent at the announcement said that that her rural district provides Internet access on buses and in school parking lots, and that the expanded access becoming available would be a monumental improvement.

The Education Department has signed agreements with major telecommunications companies for wi-fi access points and data plans.

Under the contracts, the companies will guarantee high-speed internet with unlimited data for two years for about $20 per month per device. Also, they agree to allow local school districts to buy additional devices and data plans at the same rate as the state plan.

The $10 million comes from the federal CARES Act, which is a massive relief bill passed by Congress in response to the economic and social disruption caused by the coronavirus outbreak. CARES is an acronym that stands for the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security.

In its memoranda to local schools, the state calls it the Hotspot Project and says that the intent is to benefit students with the greatest need.

When schools prioritize which students are to be allowed access to a hotspot they are to consider three criteria.

One priority is for students who are learning from home because of the pandemic and who have no way to connect with online learning materials. Another priority is for students who are economically disadvantaged and need help acquiring the equipment they need to access online learning materials. The third priority is for students who are going through periods of being homeless, and thus need help.

Schools are set to open August 24. The Education Secretary has said that his department plans to purchase $1 million of personal protective equipment, such as face masks and gloves. This stockpile will be distributed to schools if they are in danger of depleting their supplies.

The Education Secretary said that schools should be prepared to adapt, for example, they may have to close temporarily for a deep clean.


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