Students in Hamilton County Schools who receive free or reduced price lunches will soon receive free high-speed internet at no cost to their families.

This initiative, called HCS EdConnect, was announced at a news conference on Wednesday, at a critical juncture when schools are deciding whether to hold in-person or remote learning amid a growing global pandemic.

According to Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke, the city is the first in the country to “bridge the digital divide” in education by providing free internet to all students in need. Internet connectivity has been a key issue for educators who don’t want technological issues to further achievement gaps for disadvantaged students.

“In 2020, if it wasn’t obvious before, it’s more aparant than ever: High-speed broadband is a baseline need for American families,” Berke told the Times Free Press on Tuesday.

Those who participate in the new program will receive a router installed in their home that would provide at least 100 Mbps of internet service with no data caps. There will be no filters on content on the internet connection itself, although the district has filters on devices that it provides to students.

The school district is joining with EPB and other community organizations to roll out the service to about 28,500 economically challenged students in the greater Chattanooga area. Officials estimated only 20 percent of those families have previously had EPB internet service.

The $8.2 million, 10-year funding commitment was made possible “by support from local private and public partners,” according to a news release sent from the district. The release said that, out of the total, $6 million has been raised so far. Hamilton County and the city of Chattanooga each will contribute $1.5 million.

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The district said the funding partners for HCS EdConnect to date include Hamilton County, the city of Chattanooga, BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee Foundation and the Smart City Venture Fund, which includes Benwood Foundation, Community Foundation, Footprint Foundation and Robert L. And Katherina Maclellan Foundation.

Berke and Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger credit the joint effort to Hamilton Schools Superintendent Bryan Johnson, EPB President CEO David Wade and EPB Board Chair Warren Logan.

“They were able to work this out to where it’s going to give our young people an opportunity going forward to keep up and maintain their level of education,” Coppinger told the Times Free Press on Tuesday.

Johnson, through a news release, said the district is “thankful for the way this community is coming together to ensure the continuing educational progress of our children.”

Johnson told the Times Free Press on Tuesday that the initiative is not a determining factor on whether schools will reopen for total or partial in-person learning this fall. The district has been closed since March due to COVID-19.

As of Wednesday morning, there were 1,482 active cases in Hamilton County. The district has a phased plan, between all-online and all-in-person schooling, with hybrid models in between, depending on coronavirus data. According to the district’s website, the current case numbers “would put us in Phase 3 if schools were open today.” Phase 3 is one of the hybrid models. The first day of school is Aug. 12.

With the $6 million raised so far, Hamilton County Schools has begun reaching out to families of eligible students at Battle Academy, Brown Academy and Howard Connect with plans to begin installations immediately.

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Parents from other campuses will hear from Hamilton County by call, text or email. Once they receive the information from the district, parents will be able to opt in, and EPB will contact them to set up the service.

Wade said the distribution and installation of the routers for all 28,500 students will not be an overnight effort and will take a few months to complete.

“It could take three to four or even five to six months,” Wade told the Times Free Press on Tuesday.

Eligibility to participate is determined by the benchmarks for economic disadvantage set by the state of Tennessee.

Contact Monique Brand by email at mbrand@timesfreepress.com.



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