Statewide virtual school provider selected; Broadband access ‘inequities’ remain

Statewide virtual school provider selected; Broadband access ‘inequities’ remain

By Mary Sell, Alabama Daily News

The Alabama State Department of Education has selected a company called SchoolsPLP to provide a statewide virtual learning option for K-12 students in the upcoming school year.

Details of the contract with SchoolsPLP weren’t available Wednesday, but a spokesman for ALSDE said an emergency contract was issued. The school year begins next month and school systems must have in-person and at-home education options as the state continues to see the number of cases of COVID-19 climb. 

Arizona-based SchoolsPLP “is an online educational ecosystem where all aspects of eLearning are inter-connected,” according to its website.

In May, Alabama Daily News reported that ALSDE wanted a statewide virtual learning option for K-12 students whose parents may not want them to return to traditional classrooms. The online platform will also be an option should school systems have to close their physical doors again as they did in March.

Nine companies last month responded to ALSDE’s request for proposals.  

The department wants the virtual option available to families in August. 

Last week, State Superintendent Eric Mackey announced a “roadmap” for school reopenings, which will include a combination of in-person and distance-learning options in response to the coronavirus. He said the upcoming school year will be “the most difficult” the state’s faced. 

According to surveying done across the state, Mackey said about 15% of parents are not comfortable with sending their children back to schools, in many cases because they have underlying health conditions or because they live in a household that has a high-risk person for COVID-19.

State officials and educators have acknowledged that one of the challenges of at-home learning during the pandemic has been a lack of high-speed internet in some parts of the state.

‘Inequities’ issue

Alabama Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, this week told Alabama Daily News that expanding broadband will be the priority of the Senate when it returns to Montgomery, either in a special session or in the 2021 regular session. 

“I think you have a real argument, if you’re in rural Alabama under this situation, on the inequities of education,” Marsh said about internet access. “So how do we address that? I can promise you that this will be the Senate issue that has to be resolved before anything else is because it has so much effect on the state as a whole.”

Marsh in the spring had called for about $800 million of the state’s about $1.9 billion in federal coronavirus relief money to be spent on broadband expansion. 

Lawmakers and Gov. Kay Ivey eventually decided to allocate $300 million of the CARES Act money for broadband. Last week, Ivey announced a working group, including some providers, to gather input on how to spend that money. 

“Our state has serious gaps in broadband coverage, and we must do everything possible to ensure as many of our residents and businesses have access to a service that has become a vital part of  today’s world whether through education, business, healthcare or dozens of other vital areas,” Ivey said in a statement.

Because the CARES Act says the federal money must be spent before the end of the year, Marsh said he’s not sure how much of it can actually be spent on broadband. 

Marsh said based on initial conversations and meetings with providers, it could take about two years and about $1 billion to get statewide broadband. 

“What we do know, based on what this pandemic has shown us, is that it makes perfect sense that the state of Alabama has to find a way to make sure we have high-speed access across the state,” Marsh said. “I don’t know, at this point, where the money is going to come from. But the first thing you got to know is, what’s it going to cost?”

He said his office is trying to determine that cost and the cost to make sure all “students pre-K through 12th grade have the proper equipment to access it.”

The Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs, the lead agency on broadband access, is working with a private vendor on a statewide broadband plan.

“One of the items we expect to see included in the plan is an estimate of cost,” Josh Carples, a spokesman for ADEC, said Wednesday. “Since there are different broadband solutions and technologies, ADECA is unable to give a statewide cost estimate at this time.”

In January, ADECA released a map An updated map of the coverage areas in Alabama that showed about half of the state’s landmass being labeled as “unserved.”