Late last week, Gov. Kay Ivey announced $100 million in CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act funds would be allocated to increase internet access for K-12 students attending school in the fall. The 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 can be used to help cover equipment and service costs for high-speed internet service from the fall through Dec. 31, 2020.

Alabama District 9 Sen. Clay Scofield said he’s happy to see CARES Act funds being used in this way but wants to see more done to ensure rural areas of Marshall County have access to high speed internet. 

The Alabama Broadband Accessibility Fund (ABAF) bill was sponsored by Scofield and passed in 2018. He said the program works to expand highspeed internet access to people all over Alabama.

“It’s great that we have these funds from the CARES act to go toward ensuring students have access to internet at home,” he said. “But this has been an issue for thousands of people all across the state long before the COVID-19 pandemic. It will cost an estimated $600 to $800 million to accomplish our goal, which is to make sure all Alabamians have access to high speed internet.”

Scofield added the ABAF currently receives $25 million per year. While that seems to be a “drop in the bucket” compared to the almost $800 million needed, Scofield said a lot of work has already been done.

“Areas receive broadband services by applying for grants,” he said. “The grant money is given to an internet provider in the area to install the services. In the short time this fund has been open we’ve been able to do a lot of work in Dekalb and Marshall County areas. More work needs to be done, though.”

The statement from Ivey also said the following:

“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.”

Every school in Marshall County is planning to begin in-class education once again by the end of the month. However, virtual instruction is also being offered for all students throughout the county. Scofield’s concern about the lack of broadband in rural areas is evermore present with the uncertainty caused by COVID-19.

“I don’t think we’d have as big of problem now if we really committed to this years ago,” he said. “The COVID-19 situation has really shined a light on just how important it is that students have reliable access to the internet.”

In total, the state of Alabama has received $300 million in CARES Act money, according to Scofield. That amount of money can go a long way for any state in the union, but rules surrounding the funds have Scofield and other Alabama representatives concerned. 

“That $300 million has to be spent by Dec. 31. It would be really nice if that wasn’t a stipulation because we could do so much with that $300 million if we had it for a longer period of time,” he said. “Congressman Robert Aderholt is really doing a great job in Washington (D.C.) fighting to have those rules lifted. A large portion of the people in need of internet access could be helped with some of those funds. There’s just no way to make it happen before Dec. 31.”

Alabama Superintendent of Education Dr. Eric Mackey also spoke about the importance of students having internet access as part of Gov. Ivey’s statement last week. 

“A huge part of evening the playing field is to provide greater equity in educational services will come from closing the digital divide between varying Alabama communities,” he said. “We still have a lot of work to do, but because of the resources provided by Ivey, we can head into what we know will be a challenging school year with greater optimism.”

The statement also added that families with children who receive free or reduced school lunch will be notified via a mailed letter in August with more details on the program. These families can also visit the program website, www.abcstudents.org

“I’m very proud of the work we’ve done in just a few short years in expanding internet access. Not just in Marshall County, but all over the state,” Scofield concluded. “I’m also happy to see CARES act money being used like this, but we’ve got a long way to go. I’ve been invested in this problem for a while, and I’m going to continue working on it.”

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