Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey has allocated $100 million in federal CARES Act funding to increase access to internet for K-12 students who will be doing virtual learning when school starts.
“Despite the upheavals in our lives during the past few months and at least into the near future, children must be able to continue their classroom instruction,” Ivey said in a press release Friday morning. “This funding will expand internet access to allow more students to access distance learning while creating smaller classes in schools that provide those options and will also ensure their safety during the pandemic.
“While I respect those districts that have elected to use remote learning, I fear that a slide will come by keeping our kids at home,” she continued. “These funds will bridge the gap until all students can get back into the classroom as soon as possible.”
As of July 30, 27 Alabama school districts enrolling 210,000 students announced they will open school virtually, and most of those schools have at least half of their students eligible for free or reduced-price meals.
Statewide, around 52% of Alabama’s 723,000 students qualify for free or reduced-price meals.
The program, called Alabama Broadband Connectivity (ABC) for Students, 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.
Families with children who receive free or reduced school lunch will be mailed a letter in August to explain how to access the program. The “ABC for Students” website contains more information for families.
State Superintendent Eric Mackey has pushed for more internet access especially in rural areas and those where internet access may be available but families can’t afford it. When every school in Alabama was ordered closed in March, some districts handed out paper instructional packets to students who were unable to access the internet.
“A huge part of evening the playing field to provide greater equity in educational services will come from closing the digital divide between varying Alabama communities,” Mackey said in a press release. “We still have a lot of work to do, but because of the resources provided by Gov. Ivey, we can head into what we know will be a challenging school year with greater optimism.”
But the issue isn’t limited to rural areas. Several census tracts in some of Alabama’s largest cities have a high percentage of homes without internet access. In one area in the heart of Birmingham, 50% of households don’t have access. More than 60% of households in multiple parts of Mobile don’t have access, either.
The U.S. Census Bureau estimates 22% of Alabama households didn’t have internet access in 2018. As much as 17% of households don’t have a computer of any kind – and another 8% have access to a smartphone, but no other type of computer.
The Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs is administering the program. The agreement and details of how funding will be used is linked here.