Alabama rushes to get internet access to students before school year starts

(Source: KEYC News Now Photo/Ryan Sjoberg)
(Source: KEYC News Now Photo/Ryan Sjoberg)(KEYC News Now)
Updated: Aug. 3, 2020 at 8:16 PM EDT
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MONTGOMERY, Ala. (WSFA) - The first day of school is just days away for many students in Alabama and many districts are starting the year online amid growing concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic.

While virtual learning is intended to keep students safe, it poses unique challenges for families that don't have access to the internet. But this is a challenge the state has been financially addressing.

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Alabama State Department of Education and local school systems have received $435.8 million in federal funds to support safe in-person instruction and remote learning.

"By the end of this, we are going to have a much better NET, if you will, of coverage for internet in this state then we've ever had before," said State Superintendent Dr. Eric Mackey.

Friday, Gov. Kay Ivey allocated $100 million in CARES Act funding into the Alabama Broadband Connectivity Program.

The program will provide vouchers for families of students currently eligible for free and reduced-price school meals, or other income criteria. The vouchers will help cover equipment and service costs for high-speed internet service from the fall through Dec. 31, 2020.

Dr. Mackey said there are nearly 450,000 students in the state that currently qualify for free or reduced lunch, and that this is close to the number of students that will be receiving the voucher.

The question now, however, is how soon will this internet be installed?

“The private business and industry folks tell us that they feel like they can put a lot of crews on the ground in a very short order and get students connected,” said Mackey. “As long as they’re in some area where internet is at least available.”

Mackey said ALSDE is working alongside Ivey and the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs in administering the program. The agreement and details of how funding will be used is linked here.

In July, ALSDE also received $10 million from Gov. Ivey’s Emergency Education Relief Fund to equip all school buses with WiFi capabilities to increase internet connectivity and help bridge the digital divide. It allows students to have internet access while riding buses to and from school and allows buses to be parked throughout the community serving as mobile hot spots.

Mackey said schools are actively working to get those WiFi units installed.

“A lot of those orders have already been put in and indeed many school districts have already begun over the summer to order the equipment to make their buses WiFi and of course the grant then allows them to reimburse themselves for that cost,” Mackey said.

Mackey said one obstacle right now is getting computers. He said there is more money than there is computer availability.

“There’s a waiting list for computers to be shipped in,” said Mackey. “But at the same time, we’re working through that as best we can to provide for this school year.”

Mackey said he understands the anxiety parents feel, but that the safety of students and faculty comes first.

“We all have to stick together and do the best we can,” he said. “We have to learn from our mistakes as we go through this year and improve and tighten up our plans and get better and better at offering online and distance learning.”

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