Arkansas will allocate $10 million in federal funds for WiFi access points to help students in rural areas with poor internet coverage.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced the plan on Monday, just four weeks before schools are set to reopen across the state with some families electing to keep students at home for online curriculums.
“Many members of the general assembly as well as educators across the state have emphasized the importance of being able to have effective online education in addition to our in-classroom instruction,” said Hutchinson. “One of the key ingredients we know is that you have to have access to the internet, even in rural areas of the state where there’s been a gap because they don’t have that coverage”
The money comes from the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief (GEER) Fund authorized by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.
The plan is to purchase about 20,000 devices for families, with each unit set to provide 24 months of free, unlimited data service. The devices will be allocated to school districts based on per-student populations, the governor said.
It will be up to each district to select individual cellular vendors. Huthcinson said AT&T and T-Mobile have already signed on and agreed to extend the same pricing structure to any district that chooses to purchase more units than what the state provides. The governor said the state is negotiating with a potential third vendor as well.
“This is a game changer,” said Sally Bennett, superintendent of the Rivercrest School District in Mississippi County. “Part of our planning process entails providing for off-site instruction, and that has been our challenge, particularly in the rural setting.”
Bennett said internet coverage is poor in rural areas and getting internet access for students sometimes requires creative ideas like equipping buses with access points and extending access into school parking lots.
“The digital divide is real and it is deep,” she said. “But what has been announced today is monumental, and is truly going to make a difference for equity and access in our communities.”
Johnny Key, the state’s education secretary, said the Arkansas Department of Education will provide a memo to district superintendents on Tuesday (July 28) with more details about the program and how to obtain the WiFi units.
The number of known positive COVID-19 cases in Arkansas reached 39,447 on Monday, an increase of 824 since Sunday. Of those, 10 were from correctional facilities. Hospitalizations increased by nine to 489, and patients on a ventilator were up seven to 110. There were seven new deaths, bringing the statewide toll to 408.