Gov. Kay Ivey has allocated $100 million in Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding for a public-private partnership to increase access to internet for K-12 students attending school in the fall who may need internet service for distance learning.
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. Providers will contract with the state to provide the service using existing lines and technologies.
The funding from the CARES Act will be used to expand internet access by providing equipment and service for broadband, wireless hot spots, satellite, fixed wireless, DSL and cellular-on-wheels. The type of internet service for an area will depend on the closest available infrastructure that is already in place.
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Alabama State Department of Education and local school systems have received a total of $435.8 million in federal funds to support safe, in-person instruction and remote learning.
"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. “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. These funds will bridge the gap until all students can get back into the classroom as soon as possible.”
Families with children who receive free or reduced school lunch will be notified via a mailed letter in August with the program expected to run August through Dec. 30, 2020, in accordance with CARES Act guidelines. A program website to assist Alabamians with questions as the program nears its launch can be found here.
“Once again, we are appreciative of the leadership and resources provided by Gov. Ivey during this unprecedented time in our country’s history," ALSDE superintendent Dr. Eric Mackey said. "More than ever before, the immediate need for broadband infrastructure, devices, and connectivity are an integral part of providing Alabama students with a quality education. 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. 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.”
The Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs (ADECA) is administering the federal CARES Act funding for this program. ADECA has partnered with CTC Technology & Energy to administer the ABC for Students program in Alabama. CTC is already assisting the state with broadband planning needs.
ADECA also administers the Alabama Broadband Accessibility Fund, which provides grant funding to expand broadband service in the state.
“We have learned in the past several months that internet connectivity is a necessity for everything from education to healthcare and working remotely," Alabama Senate president pro tempore Sen. Del Marsh said. "I am pleased that Alabama is going to enter into this private-public partnership to make internet access available to those low-income households who cannot currently afford it. Economic status should not be a determining factor in receiving quality education, and it should not bar anyone from the ability to access vital online services. Although this is only a temporary solution, I am confident that it will be a bridge to a time when fiber is put in the ground and access to the internet and devices will become standard across Alabama.”
The plan was formulated with the input of the Broadband Working Group, which includes legislators as well as industry experts, organized to gather input and guidance on allocation of CARES Act monies.
“I appreciate the opportunity to be a part of Gov. Ivey’s working group to utilize federal funds in the CARES Act to provide broadband access to all Alabama students regardless of income," said Rep. Randall Shedd, who is a member of the working group and a leader of the Rural Caucus as well as a supporter of broadband expansion efforts in the state. "I think Gov. Ivey has a good plan."