Schools will soon be opening across Arkansas in late August, and state officials are preparing for both in-person instruction and online learning. While Gov. Asa Hutchinson and other state officials have emphasized the necessity of returning to on-site instruction, they are preparing for online instruction for students and the infrastructure needed to support this effort.
Online learning will require stable internet for students, a resource that can be in short supply, especially in rural parts of Arkansas. To combat this, Hutchinson has brokered a deal with cellular providers to purchase Wi-Fi access points and data plans for school districts.
Hutchinson announced during a press conference on Monday, July 27 that the state has signed agreements with AT&T and T-Mobile to purchase devices and data points at reduced costs. “One of the key ingredients, we know, is that you have to have access to internet, even in the rural areas of the state, and there’s been a gap there because they don’t have that coverage,” he said.
The Arkansas Department of Education will fund the initiative with $10 million drawn from the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief (GEER) Fund. This funding, provided by the CARES Act, will enable the state to purchase approximately 20,000 devices that will be provided free of charge to students.
According to Hutchinson, these devices and plans will be allocated to school districts based on enrollment numbers. The districts will then allocate the devices based on needs.
Rivercrest School District superintendent Sally Bennett called the deal a “game-changer” for rural school districts. “The digital divide is real and it is deep. This is monumental. It’s truly going to make a difference for equity in access in our communities,”
As part of the deal, AT&T and T-Mobile (as well as a possible third party) will provide high-speed internet with unlimited data for two years. Each device and the data will cost approximately $20.
School districts will be able to purchase more devices and data at the same rate if needed.
“As the coronavirus pandemic has forced us to adjust our methods of teaching, we have become even more aware of the need for virtual education as an option,” Hutchinson said in a statement. “This project expands our reach and narrows the gap between those who have access to high-speed broadband and those who do not. This is especially important for our rural communities and for families who otherwise might not be able to afford this vital access. This project opens new opportunities for our educators, parents, and students.”