TALLADEGA -- A program announced earlier this week by Gov. Kay Ivey and the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs will go a long way toward leveling the playing field among students using distance learning this year.
The Alabama Broadband Connectivity for Students program will provide a voucher for any K-12 student on a free or reduced-price meal plan to cover the cost of equipment, installation fees and internet service through Dec. 30 of this year.
Talladega City Schools Superintendent Tony Ball said parents should be receiving a letter, if they have not already, giving them a voucher number.
“Just call one of the internet service providers listed in the letter, tell them you have an ABC voucher, receive the equipment and installation support, and connect to distance learning,” he said. The vouchers can be used only for residential service.
He added if any parents who are not eligible receive a voucher by mistake, they should destroy it.
“We’re sending the letters out to all the addresses that we have on file,” he said. “If you’ve moved, you need to update your address, or you won’t get one.”
Parents who do not get a letter in the mail should contact their child’s school to make sure the correct address is on file.
The city schools have also entered into a partnership with the newly merged T-Mobile/Sprint for the Talladega Lean Stream Program. Ball said this program will provide a portable hotspot for parents and employees of the city system with no contract or fees. There is a cost here, he said, of $50 per month, but the ABC vouchers can be used to cover these costs.
The hotspot is battery powered and can fit in a pocket, he said.
Charter/Spectrum and AT&T also offer low-cost options.
Ball said the city system also has plans to set up hotspots in all school parking lots and on school buses, starting next week.
In St. Clair County, the news of the internet vouchers is being greeted with enthusiasm.
“I truly believe the voucher is going to be beneficial for our low-income families,” St. Clair County Superintendent Mike Howard said.
Howard said the program will help the system in its efforts to make sure distance learning students are able to access digital materials.
Howard said the system has also ordered Wi-Fi equipment to install on buses throughout the county. He said after the system receives and installs the equipment, the Wi-Fi-enabled buses will be placed in strategic places so that students can have access.
He said schools are also providing free Wi-Fi to school-provided devices that can be accessed at school parking lots.
“We are trying to do everything we can,” Howard said.
Superintendent Dr. James Martin said Pell City Schools are trying to make sure parents know about the internet voucher program.
“We are getting a call out about the program to our parents,” he said. “We’re trying to do as much as we can to promote it.”
Martin said he thinks the program is beneficial to all students. He said a key part of the digital age is internet access, but he said he was worried some students may still not have access available due to service deficiencies.
Martin said the system is looking at other ways to extend internet access to students but is waiting for guidance from the state Board of Education.
Sylacauga City Schools Superintendent Dr. John Segars said internet access “was definitely one of our top three concerns going forward. It’s something we talked about a lot. This (ABC for Students) will potentially reach the almost 60 percent of our students that qualify for the program.
“Many of these students don’t have internet access in their homes, and we’re really thankful to the governor for this program. The vouchers will start to be available next week, and it will take some time to get set up, but it will put us on track now through December, at least.
“Hopefully it might continue beyond that, but every little bit helps. We’re excited. This is definitely a move in the right direction.”
Talladega County Schools Superintendent Dr. Suzanne Lacey agreed.
“This is a wonderful opportunity for all the students who qualify,” she said. “The information is on its way to the parents, and we hope this program will fill in any gaps we may still have.”
The county system had already issued about 100 portable hotspots before the program was announced, she added.
“But anyone that qualifies that still needs connectivity should definitely do this. It’s a great opportunity to be more connected.”
-- Staff writer Taylor Mitchell contributed to this story.