By Ray King

Although schools in Arkansas are expected to begin in-class instruction in about a month, the state is preparing to improve the ability for students to take classes online if needed.

During his daily COVID-19 press briefing Monday, Governor Asa Hutchinson said he is releasing $10 million from the governor’s fund to help provide WI-FI access points for students from kindergarten to the 12th grade.

The money, which will come from funds the state received under the Federal CARES Act, will be used to purchase 20,000 access points which will be given to school districts in the state, based on the number of students the district has. In addition, Hutchinson said A.T. & T., AND T-Mobil have agreed to sell additional access points to districts at the same price the state is paying.

“We will see how far they (the access points) go,” Hutchinson said. “They can also be supplemented with local funds.” Last spring, districts in the Pine Bluff area and in other parts of the state equipped school buses with WI-FI access points and parked them at various locations to enable students who didn’t have internet at home to be able to get school work online after in-class in instruction was shut down in early March. The state-supplied access points will allow the districts to beef that up.

State Education Department Director Johnny Key said access to broadband has been a challenge, particularly in rural school districts and said it is critical to work with internet providers to ensure that there is customer service and tech service as needed.

After a weekend that saw new cases of COVCID-19 decline Saturday and Sunday after they reached nearly 1,000 on Friday, the Governor said the number of new cases went back up on Monday as 824 were reported. That brings the total number of cumulative cases to 39,447.

Pulaski County had the highest number of new cases of any county in the state, reporting 120. That was followed by Washington County with 62, Craighead County with 46, Benton County with 45, Sebastian County with 30 and Jefferson County with 29.

An additional nine people were hospitalized, bringing the state total to 489, and there were 7 additional deaths, raising the state total to 408.

Key said his department is in the process of conducting a survey of school districts around the state on a variety of issues relating to the opening of schools which is scheduled for the week of Aug. 24. Among other things, the survey asks about the amount of P.P.E. (Personal Protection Equipment) the district has on hand. He said the state will be spending $1 million on equipment and will have it available if districts have supply issues with their own orders, or if they run short because of other factors.