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Grant funds to help Carroll County students lacking reliable internet access, with virtual learning nearing

As Carroll County Public Schools prepares for a new year that will begin Sept. 8 with all-online instruction, some students are at risk of falling behind due to unreliable access to broadband internet. A new state grant aims to help address that problem.

The grant program announced by Gov. Larry Hogan’s office on Aug. 13 will award nearly $8 million to 21 jurisdictions that applied for assistance, with $50,192 going to Carroll, in order to help fill gaps in students’ access to remote learning. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, CCPS and other school systems throughout Maryland are not opening school buildings, relying on instruction that will be conducted through live streaming and other internet-based functionality.

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The grant funds are intended to provide students with cellular hotspots, which allow for internet connections through a cellphone or other device, in rural areas where infrastructure for broadband internet might not be available. In more urban areas, the funds are aimed toward helping students who don’t have internet access to secure service from a provider.

“Our administration is committed to expanding broadband to every corner of our state, and as many local school systems prepare for remote or hybrid learning models in the fall, this access is more important than ever,” Hogan said in a news release. “These grants will support partnerships between the state, local governments, and internet service providers to ensure distance learning options are available and accessible for all Maryland students.”

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According to CCPS Chief Information Officer Gary Davis, hotspots will be given to students who don’t have access to internet speeds of at least 25 megabits per second down and 3 Mbps up. Grant funds will also be used to set qualifying students up with Comcast’s Internet Essentials program, which the company describes as a starter program for low-income households.

“This will be done through our 16 year partnership and sub-grant to the Carroll Technology & Innovation Council via their TechKids program,” Davis said in an emailed statement. “The grant will pay for these services through December and CCPS will pay for the remainder of the school year if needed due to required virtual learning.”

The school system has identified households that are currently lacking broadband service, as well as homes of students who qualify for Comcast Internet Essentials in Comcast’s service area. “The process of identification and distribution is on a very tight timeline and we will address individual cases as needed,” Davis said.

The specific number of affected students is unclear, Davis said, but he estimates that no more than 100 students would have no coverage at all. Some might have coverage that’s inconsistent or even different depending on the area of the house or property.

Davis did caution that a cellular hotspot might not be an option for some areas where signal coverage is weak. CCPS has access to wireless vendors’ cellular coverage maps and will reach out to those in “questionable areas” to assess the level of coverage they have, he said.

“For those that do not have coverage, other options are being developed,” Davis said in an emailed statement, adding that CCPS offers public Wi-Fi that can be accessed from school parking lots. “Other options are paper/pencil activities and accessing available school media centers for qualifying students.”

The governor’s office is also devoting about $2 million to study a new statewide wireless network that would be exclusively dedicated to educational uses, according to the news release.

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