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story.lead_photo.caption Kim Williams (left) and Cheree Buchanan hand out tablet computers Monday, April 6, 2020, at Little Rock Central High School as the Little Rock School District began distributing computers to students forced into remote learning. ( Arkansas Democrat-Gazette / John Sykes Jr.)

Better than 92% -- or 243 of Arkansas' 263 school districts and charter schools systems -- say that all of their students will have access in the new school year to computer devices.

That's according to the results of a recent survey of the districts done by the Arkansas Division of Elementary and Secondary Education.

A total of 240 districts also reported that internet access for those devices can be provided by student families in the home. But to supplement that service at home or to fill in where there isn't internet service, 188 of the 256 responding school systems said they also can provide internet access to students for blended and/or remote learning. A total of 118 districts reported that "other" types of internet access will be available to students, such as strategically located Wi-Fi hot spots.

Don Benton, the education division's assistant commissioner for research and technology, said the 22-question education technology survey was done in a short time -- just under two weeks starting June 8 -- generating a 97% response from the districts.

"This was not meant to be any type of a gotcha survey," Benton said last week, but is "meant to be a real live snapshot of where you are right now, and how we as a department of education and the education service cooperatives can help you as a school, based on what data you submitted," he said.

The survey was sent out just as the school districts -- which serve more than 470,000 students -- were finishing the coronavirus-abbreviated 2019-20 school year and beginning plans for the coming school year for which containing the spread of the highly contagious and sometimes fatal virus remains a priority.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson and Arkansas Education Secretary Johnny Key have said they want school campuses to be open to students in August, but that students and teachers must also be prepared for doing school work at home -- remotely -- in the event the virus causes campuses to have to close.

To that end, the school district plans, which are just now beginning to take form, include a mix of ways to deliver instruction. They include virtual schools in which some students will rely on online lessons and won't be on campus at all. Other students will work on campus but receive a blend of face-to-face and digital online instruction.

Some schools are considering schedules in which one group of students may be on campus part of the week and learn from home the rest 0f the week.

MULTIPLE OPTIONS

School systems will need to provide multiple options for their students based on the resources available to students and despite all of the unknowns related to the pandemic, Benton said.

"Our goal was to get as much information as we can and get as much training out as we can," he said about the purpose of the survey.

The survey not only provides a statewide picture of available education technology to students and teachers but also includes district-by-district information that can vary significantly from the statewide data.

The Atkins School District, for example, responded that all of its students will have access to devices such as Chromebooks, other kinds of laptops and tablets. The Atkins district also reported that 30% of its students don't have access to broadband internet.

School-provided internet access will be used to fill that gap, as will district-provided strategically located Wi-FI hot spots, district officials said in their survey response.

The Atkins district, roughly east of Russellville in Pope County, also estimated that at least 81% of its educators have devices and internet connectivity capable of delivering lessons to students away from campus.

In response to a question about how the state agency can assist with resources and training for when blended or remote instruction is necessary, the Atkins district asked for the state to pay for remote internet transmission and later asked the state to ensure help in providing internet accessibility.

On the matter of content for blended learning, the Atkins district said it intends to rely on long-standing Virtual Arkansas state-provided online coursework and "home-grown" content developed within the school system. The district responded affirmatively to having interest in state-provided digital content for grades kindergarten through 12.

The survey results for other school systems in the state show a range of resources and needs.

In the Warren School District in southeast Arkansas, 40% of students don't have internet access. The district asked the state for "ideas on how to reach students that have ZERO internet connections while working remotely." The district also asked for professional development and continuing support on how to use a learning management system.

In the Conway School District, virtually all students have access to internet service in their homes but at varying quality or speeds. There is also school-provided internet access and free public Wi-Fi for educator and student use, according to the survey. The district is planning to use "home-grown" lessons and lessons from a large number of content providers for remote teaching and learning.

In El Dorado, 16% of students have no internet access at home.

In Bentonville, just 1% of students do not have internet access at home, and 75% of students have the highest speed of internet service. While most Bentonville students have access to the internet in their homes, the district will provide expanded internet access in school parking lots, the district said in the survey. In regard to needs, the district asked for strong professional development for teachers and financial support for those without strong home internet service.

OTHER RESPONSES

In the KIPP Delta Public Schools system, which is based in Helena-West Helena, 5% of students do not have internet access at home and 90% have low-speed access. All students have access to devices, the system reported, and the school system is a provider of internet access for them.

"We could use additional support on parent coaching, supporting parents in technology issues, integrating additional tools into Google Classroom for teachers, creating consistent structures in your day while working from home," the school leaders said in response to a question about training needs for the KIPP charter school staff.

The Jonesboro School District didn't give a percentage of students without home internet but said: "We have a plan to ensure that every student has access to internet during closure. 1) provided by family at home, neighbor, relative. 2) expanded wifi provided by district in school parking lots. 3) provided free at library and businesses. 4) provided at a discount for low-income families through SuddenLink. 5) hot spots provided by district. 6) wifi on buses provided by district."

In response to the question about the teacher training needs in regard to blended/remote learning, the Jonesboro system said: "With almost 500 teachers the needs vary." The district called for additional support in using a learning management system or content portal planning instruction "for 'hands-on' classrooms (i.e., automotive, culinary) and labs (i.e., science); engaging students and monitoring learning, etc."

The Little Rock School District reported that all students will have access to devices, but 10% of its students have no internet access at their homes. The district also responded that the district will use federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act grant money to purchase devices for teachers.

In response to a question about the district's blended/remote learning plan, the district responded: "We plan to have a fully virtual option, utilizing either district teachers or Virtual Arkansas to provide content. Then for those who want to attend in person, teachers will utilize the learning management system we choose to integrate into lessons daily so a switch to fully digital will be easily accomplished."

The survey also asked: "What are your district's professional development needs for conducting blended/remote instruction?"

"The what, how and why of blended learning," the Little Rock district said. "Teachers will need to know how to utilize the learning management system and how to build truly blended lessons. Also, ideas on how to make the lessons interactive and engaging for students."

The survey responses for nearly all of the districts and the state can be viewed here: https://bit.ly/2YVikQM.

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