SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah State Board of Education voted Thursday to add $1 million from the agency’s state Coronavirus Relief Funds to extend the reach of a competitive grant program to bring broadband access or hotspots to the households of K-12 students.
Sarah Young, the board’s director of strategic initiatives, told board members that the funding would supplement $5 million previously allocated to the agency by the Utah Education and Telehealth Network for the grant program, bringing the total available funds up to $6 million for the 2020-21 school year.
Competitive grants would reimburse school districts or charter schools for costs associated with bringing internet access “to the household level,” Young said.
“That’s going to look different depending on the community. Some of them are looking at marrying with their local provider to provide internet to the home in partnership with the Lifeline program. Some of our LEAs (local education agencies) are looking at procuring hotspots to be able to pick out individual students and families as they see fit,” Young said.
Lifeline is a federal program that lowers the monthly cost of phone and internet.
Young said the competitive grants are intended to help address needs for the current school year.
Utah’s sudden shift to remote learning last school year due to the COVID-19 pandemic brought to light Utah’s digital divide and stirred concerns about educational equity. The grants are intended to help address some of those deficiencies.
“The broad-scale solution is going to be a larger price tag and much more comprehensive than the specific grants that we have here today. But the grant serves to be able to address the current needs for families for this school year, recognizing that it’s going to take several more months to develop a comprehensive and long-term state solution,” she said.
To help inform those efforts, the board also approved spending $75,000 for an external evaluation of the K-12 broadband/hotspot grant program. The funding is from the CARES Act.
Some board members questioned why the board would need to hire an external provider to conduct an evaluation when school districts and charter schools should be accountable for reporting the effectiveness of services or equipment purchased with grant funds.
“I would hope that we could just ask the LEAs (local education agencies) who are receiving funds to report on the effectiveness of their usage. I don’t see a need to hire someone,” said board member Scott Hansen.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Sydnee Dickson, in a recent meeting with state lawmakers, said internet access needs to be considered as an “essential utility” no different than electricity or water.
“Without that, we can’t grow the economy. Without that, families can’t have access to information that leads to jobs and housing, food, etc.,” she said.
Dickson told the Utah Legislature’s Education Interim Committee that she will continue to advocate for internet access as an essential utility for families “until we accomplish it.”
In a related matter, the board also approved setting aside $452,000 from the Utah K-12 CARES set aside funds to obtain a K-12 license for Scrible.
Scrible is a tech-based writing, research, annotation and collaboration platform to support digital learning and teaching.