The Barrow County School System aims to provide Dell Chromebooks and at-home mobile hotspots to students who currently lack access to the devices and services they need to complete assignments from home. But that will be contingent upon federal funding.

This summer, the district sent out a comprehensive survey to families to identify need. Out of the 5,273 responses received, 4,575 students identified as needing a device for home use and 1,395 students identified as needing adequate internet access, representing 779 households.

Both purchases would be funded by the $7.17 billion FCC Emergency Connectivity Fund Program (ECF), established by the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021. The ECF was designed to help close the nationwide “homework gap,” which refers to the inequity of millions of students who lack proper internet access from home.

The county school board's approval Tuesday to pursue the program is the first step in the process, said John St. Clair, the district's director of technology. He said the district will file the request this week in advance of the Aug. 13 deadline, and the timing for application review and award distribution by the FCC remains unknown. The district is not guaranteed to receive any funding.

For the Dell Chromebooks, the ECF allocates $400 for each device with the district responsible for picking up any cost above $400. Using ECF and CARES Act funds, the district’s initial purchase of 4,575 Chromebooks at $423.07 per device would total $1,935,545.25. ECF would fund $1,830,000 and CARES would cover the remaining $105,545.25.

Devices purchased under the program would be property of the school district but must be assigned to the specific students identified as needing devices to take home for school use. The district would be purchasing the Chromebooks from Dell in Rolling Rock, Texas.

For the internet access program, the ECF allocates $250 per device of upfront costs with an undefined monthly cost limit expected to be in the $25 range. Since the district would assume responsibility of managing the home internet service, it has elected AT&T mobile hotspot, which officials said has good coverage in Barrow County, meets the cost limitations provided by ECF and has a simpler model for deployment of devices with decent internet speeds.

For each household, the AT&T mobile hotspot would cost $84.99 upfront with a monthly service charge of $12 for one year, which totals $228.99 per household for the first year. The cost would total $144 per household for years two and beyond, contingent upon ECF funding availability.

Serving 779 households, the costs for mobile hotspot access comes to a total of $178,383.21 for year one and $112,176 for years two and beyond, if funded. AT&T mobile hotspot access would be funded entirely with federal ECF funds with no contractual obligation or financial expense to the district.

During the duration of the program, it is possible there may be subsequent filing opportunities to add additional families in need. Although the FCC has provided few details on the longevity of the program, it has been published that if the initial funding of the program is not exhausted in the first wave of filings, another wave is likely.

In addition to authorizing pursuit of the two programs, during its meeting July 27, the county school board voted to authorize additional Chromebook purchases through Sept. 30 for a maximum total cap of $850,000, which will be funded from various sources.

“I want to make sure every family in this county has an opportunity to take advantage of this,” board member Lynn Stevens said.

But in addition to having to wait until likely late August or early September to find out if it will be awarded the federal grant money, the district will still have to contend with ongoing global technology shortages and shipping delays. St. Clair said he doesn't anticipate receiving the devices any earlier than October and that it could be 2022 before they arrive.

"If all parties move very quickly, and we are awarded in August and order in August, we might get device in September, but I am not counting on that," St. Clair wrote in an email. 

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