As students across Kentucky kick off another school year, the state is attempting to expand internet access so that more of them can successfully attend classes virtually.
Most school districts in the commonwealth are starting off the academic year with remote learning due to COVID-19. Lt. Gov. Jacqueline Coleman said Kentucky will invest $8 million to make monthly internet bills more affordable for low-income parents of K-12 students.
She said the pandemic has the potential to worsen the digital divide, the gap between those who have access to the internet and computers and those who don’t. Some school districts, including Jefferson County, have improved access in the past five months, but there are still about 32,000 kindergarten through grade 12 students throughout Kentucky without internet access at home.
“But we have to do better by that remaining 5% of students that still do not have access to broadband in their homes,” she said.
The two factors most likely to prevent that access are difficulty in physically reaching certain homes and the cost of that access.
Coleman said the administration will go through the request for proposals process with the goal of identifying internet providers to provide high-speed service to students in low-income homes for no more than $10 a month.
Students without internet access will be eligible to have that monthly bill paid for this entire school year using funding from the CARES Act, which provides federal reimbursement for coronavirus-related expenses. Those students with access paid for by their parents in a labeled low-income home, federal funds will be available to offset most of those costs for the next two to three school years, Coleman said.
The assistance could be used for services like satellites, wireless internet, and wired options like services from a cable or telephone company. It would also help with hotspots that would allow students to connect on their cell phones, though Beshear said that’s not a sustainable solution.
He said investment was a “short-term” fix, but the goal is to get access as quickly as possible to families who need it.
“The long-term answer to, especially rural internet connectivity, isn’t a hotspot on your phone where you can get on your computer, but the question is right now how quickly can we get people on,” he said.
Jefferson County Public Schools officials said earlier this month they had purchased 30,000 Chromebooks and 10,000 Wi-Fi hot-spots that would be distributed to students. The district had its first day of school — virtually — on Tuesday.
In Louisville, officials have worked to improve access to internet and hardware such as computers. The city’s Chief of Civic Innovation and Technology Grace Simrall said that some low-cost internet plans can come with slower download speeds, which impacts their usability.
Beshear announced there were 688 new COVID-19 cases in Kentucky reported Tuesday, along with 10 additional deaths. That brings the state’s total cases to at least 44,568, and total deaths to at least 895.
He said the positivity rate is again over 5%. The White House lists 16 counties in the red zone, where the positivity rate is above 10%. Jefferson County is on that list, as are neighboring Oldham and Bullitt.
Beshear also said the state plans to commute the sentences of more inmates who were convicted of non-violent, non-sex offenses and are near the end of their sentences. Earlier this year, Kentucky commuted the sentences of more than 1,200 inmates due to the threat of the coronavirus.
J. Michael Brown, secretary of the executive cabinet, said the state plans to release an addition 646 inmates. He said 121 of those qualify as medically-vulnerable, based on CDC criteria, and 525 are within six months of completing their sentences.