Little Rock City officials are aiming to increase broadband access for citizens, especially students as they resume school during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Mayor Frank Scott Jr. noted that broadband access is a major issue in Little Rock, particularly for low-income individuals and families.
“Despite the availability of broadband service across almost all of the city, there is ongoing income-based digital inequity in Little Rock,” he said.. “The digital divide is not just a rural issue in our state. It is also an urban issue, one that has been magnified during the coronavirus pandemic. Through partnerships with both LRSD and PCSSD, we have created a short-term response to get students connected at home.”
For Little Rock chief education officer Dr. Jay Barth, broadband is a necessity for modern life that impacts individuals’ abilities to function in society. To have a level playing field for Little Rock citizens, he argued that broadband equity is necessary. “We know that to be a vibrant 21stcentury citizen, it is important to have equity in the area of digital life,” he said.
When tackling the issue of broadband equity, Barth said the city set three core principles. These principles include equity in connectivity, equity in appropriate devices and equity in digital literacy.
“Those three key principles of digital equity are really what have driven our work over the last number of months getting ready to announce what we’re doing today,” he said.
The City of Little Rock is addressing the issue of connectivity by increasing the amount of hot spots available to students during the pandemic. The city has purchased 1,000 hot spots for the city’s two school districts: the Little Rock School District (LRSD) and the Pulaski County Special School District.
These 1,000 hot spots are in addition to hot spots that the Department of Education has purchased for school districts around the state. In July 2020, state officials announced that they were spending $10 million to purchase Wi-Fi access points and data plans for school districts throughout Arkansas.
According to Barth, most of the city’s hot spots will be going to LRSD with some also going to PCSDD.“This means, I think we can be pretty confident…that pretty much any student in the Little Rock School District who needs a hot spot is going to have one,” Barth said.
The city will reportedly be applying to be reimbursed for the hot spots through CARES Act funding. The districts will shoulder the ongoing costs of the data plans.
“We know that the best place for students to be able to do their homework is in their homes. That’s the best place for them to have safe, comfortable learning environments,” Barth said. “We know that a number of students in both districts are, of course, learning from home now, and so they need high quality internet. We also know that we have to prepare for contingencies. So, the schools may have to close for some period of time and everyone in that school may need to go home for a little while, so we want to be fully prepared.”
The Central Arkansas Library System (CALS) is also partnering with the city to increase broadband access by piloting a hot spot check out program at its branches.
City-owned community centers will be transformed into virtual learning centers to allow students to use broadband to learn in a safe environment if schools must close for a period. Barth said that five community centers are expected to be used.
However, the city is continuing to look at city-owned facilities to allow more broadband access. Officials are focusing on outdoor locations to allow increased social distanced space. This project has not been finalized as is continuing to be developed by the city.
Increasing broadband education is also a key component of the digital equity initiative. Winrock International’s Arkansas Regional Innovation Hub is providing virtual classes to parents, focusing on computer usage and software for parents. “Access means having the right tools and knowing how to use them,” Arkansas Regional Innovation Hub executive director Dr. Chris Jones said.
This announcement comes as Little Rock embarks on its second-annual Education Month, which will culminate in a virtual Education Roundtable hosted by Scott on Sept. 29.
Barth said that the broadband efforts will help student succeed in the coming school year, but the city had much work to do to bridge the digital divide for its citizens.
“I think we can say that as a community that we have gotten there in terms of digital equity for this year,” he said. “We’ve got a lot more work to do for the long haul in terms of digital equity for the community.”