LEE COUNTY, Ala. (WRBL) – The lack of reliable internet plagues several families within the Lee County School system as they prepare for the first four weeks of virtual learning beginning August 17. News 3 has learned the Lee County School system is working on several solutions, including deploying 20 school busses outfitted with WiFi to troubled hotspots.
Richard Warner is a stay at home dad, coach, and sometimes substitute teacher. His wife is a frontline health care hero battling COVID-19. For years his family and twenty or so neighbors have been trying to bring reliable internet to their Lee Road 380 neighborhood. Now, the need is urgent as their 5th and 7th graders prepare to enter virtual classrooms. Warner believes the school system is doing the best it can.
“How are our kids supposed to go to school virtually for at least the first four weeks without reliable internet. I’m not sure how it’s all going to work, and they are not sure how it’s all going to work. I know they are trying to do the best they can for our kids; this is a part of the puzzle. We have to get reliable internet to parents who are trying to work and educate their kids,” expressed Warner.
Andrew Click, Technology Director with Lee County Schools, tells News 3 they are working to provide connectivity for families. Lee County Schools is in the process of outfitting twenty school buses with WiFi and have devised plans to deploy those buses in high impact areas of need throughout the school district.
“Furthermore, we remind families that they can utilize our school buildings’ high-speed internet, which can be accessed from outside the buildings. Finally, we are also prepared to provide a limited number of wireless hotspot devices in instances where no other option exists,” shared Click.
The Lee County School System is also working to provide reliable devices to those who do not have access to them.
“We also recognize that connectivity with those devices may be an obstacle for some of our families. We encourage any qualifying family to follow the guidelines for the Alabama Broadband Connectivity for Students plan shared by Governor Ivey last week. Information about this resource can be found here: https://abcstudents.org/,” shared Click.
Back at home, Warner believes the solution also requires putting pressure on internet providers to start running lines sooner, not later.
“As far as I know, the only land-based company that will come out this area of Lee County, in Beulah, is Spectrum. The starting point is finding someone to talk to, getting answers, and a timeline other than starting school without internet 12 days from now,” shared Warner.
News 3 has reached out to Spectrum. We are told a representative is looking into the situation. We will keep you updated as we expect a statement from the internet provider offering more information.
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.
Governor Kay Ivey recently signed legislation to make broadband more available to Alabamians, particularly in the rural areas.
Senate Bill 90, known as the Rural Broadband Initiative, allows the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs (ADECA) to expand the grant program for broadband providers in rural and under-served areas. The grant initiative is supervised by ADECA and the Alabama Rural Broadband Legislative Oversight Committee.
The bill also raises the minimum transmission speeds required to participate in the grant program. It creates a “middle mile” component, which will allow companies to build additional infrastructure to provide more bandwidth for high-speed internet access.
According to lawmakers, about 800,000 Alabamians don’t have broadband in their homes. The legislature has added $20 million to the rural broadband grant program.
Governor Ivey also allocated $100 million in CARES Act funding for a public-private partnership to increase access to the internet for K-12 students attending school in the fall. They 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 December 31, 2020. Providers will contract with the state to provide the service using existing lines and technologies. A program website to assist Alabamians with questions can be located by clicking this link: Alabama Broadband Connectivity Website.
The funding from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (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.
The Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs 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.
In addition to internet connectivity issues, the order Lee County Schools placed for 3,600 computer devices will not be fulfilled in time due to unforeseen circumstances Lee County and other school systems had no control over. Lee County School administrators say the laptops are held up in transport due to an apparent human rights issue.
Tuesday, Lee County parents were notified of the problem:
“In May 2020, Lee County Schools ordered 3,600 additional computer devices so that we could supply each student and each teacher with a Chromebook. Due to unforeseen disruptions in the supply chain, the devices ordered will be delayed for an extended period. In an effort to make sure every child we serve has the necessary tools for education, you will be contacted this week and asked questions to determine if a device needs to be provided by Lee County Schools or if you have adequate availability to a home computer in addition to internet access. As we pivot to a revised plan for providing computers, we appreciate your cooperation, patience, and support.”
News 3 will continue following this story as the start of the school year draws closer.