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FORT SMITH -- The Fort Smith School District is looking into a possible way to provide internet access to all its students.

The School Board has authorized Superintendent Doug Brubaker to negotiate and execute a contract to conduct a feasibility study for an LTE network for the district at a cost not to exceed $30,000.

This comes at a time when the Arkansas Division of Elementary and Secondary Education has directed school districts in the state to prepare an education program for the 2020-21 school year that relies on both face-to-face and online instruction, as well as being able to blend them and to pivot between the two.

An abstract dated May 28 that was included in the agenda packet of a Fort Smith School Board meeting earlier in the month states that the covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of home internet access for students.

The district's curriculum and instruction department conducted a survey within the past two weeks that indicates that 22% of elementary students and 4% of secondary students do not have home internet access. However, these results may not reflect access through friends and family, the district's Park and Learn initiative and other public access programs.

The survey shows that 18% of elementary staff members in the school district and 15% of secondary staff members do not have home internet access as well.

Vance Gregory, executive director of technology for the district, continues to secure LTE modem, or hot spot, pricing and availability to help meet this need, the abstract states.

The board approved allowing the purchasing of up to 2,500 of these modems and related services using the most cost-effective vendor, and to then proceed with executing a contract in a form approved by the district's legal counsel during its May 18 meeting, according to the minutes of that meeting.

In talking about strategies for school-to-home connections June 1, Brubaker said one such option is a private LTE network.

This would involve the school district essentially setting up its own network in partnership with private entities to send 4G out into the community.

A couple of school districts in other states have already pursued this. A feasibility study would determine whether or not this strategy could work in Fort Smith.

STATE DIRECTIVE

Top-level Division of Elementary and Secondary Education staff members in an online webinar earlier in the month called for the state's school systems to immediately begin to identify digital lessons and diagnostic tests to use during the school year. They also called for providing computer devices and internet access to students and faculty members, identifying waivers of state laws and rules they will need on a fast track to carry out a blended instruction program, formulating communication plans and modifying their own district policies.

"As many of you have heard the governor state, it is his expectation and desire that we in Arkansas start back to school in August as normal as possible," state Education Secretary Johnny Key said.

"However, we know that in this covid-19 situation that some of those things that we once considered normal will definitely need adjustments," Key said.

Information for this article was contributed by Cynthia Howell of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

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