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story.lead_photo.caption Gov. Asa Hutchinson reviews the latest coronavirus data Monday during a briefing at the state Capitol in Little Rock. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Staci Vandagriff)

LITTLE ROCK – Governor Asa Hutchinson has announced the Arkansas Department of Education (ADE) has signed agreements with AT&T and T-Mobile to purchase Wi-Fi access points and data plans at a reduced cost for every school district in the state.

Students will receive the devices and internet access at no cost. ADE will fund the project with $10 million from the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief (GEER) Fund, provided through the federal CARES Act program. ADE will purchase as many as 20,000 devices. ADE will allocate the devices to each school district based on enrollment. The school districts will distribute the devices based on need within the community.

“As the coronavirus pandemic has forced us to adjust our methods of teaching, we have become even more aware of the need for virtual education as an option,” Governor Hutchinson said. “This project expands our reach and narrows the gap between those who have access to high-speed broadband and those who do not. This is especially important for our rural communities and for families who otherwise might not be able to afford this vital access. This project opens new opportunities for our educators, parents, and students.”

The agreement with AT&T and T-Mobile guarantees high-speed internet with unlimited data for two years for about $20 per month per device.

The providers have also agreed to allow districts to purchase additional devices and data at the same rate as the state plan.

Access to the internet is “critical to education,” Secretary of Education Johnny Key said.

“Providing Wi-Fi access points to students will allow for a seamless transition between onsite and offsite instruction as needed,” Secretary Key said. “This will support continued learning and allow for greater flexibility.”

Sally Bennett, superintendent of the Rivercrest School District, praised the program as a “game changer.”

“The digital divide is real and it is deep. This is monumental. It’s truly going to make a difference for equity in access in our communities,” Superintendent Bennett said. “We have an avenue now to fully serve our students, whether they are onsite, as we hope, or if we have to pivot to offsite.”

The program is a joint project of ADE, the Arkansas State Broadband Office, and the Governor’s Office.

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