DIGITAL EQUITY: That’s the goal announced today by Jay Bart, the city’s education officer, along with Mayor Frank Scott and others.

The city announced steps today to ensure “digital equity” for students learning remotely during the pandemic.

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Jay Barth, Little Rock’s chief educational officer, outlined work to ensure all students have connectivity to the Internet, the necessary devices  and equity in digital “literacy,” or knowledge of how to use computers and software.

In connectivity, Barth said the city would supply 1,000 more hotspots that allow connection to the Internet, in addition to those already acquired by the two local school districts  in the city — Little Rock and Pulaski County Special. The hope is that CARES Act money the state receives will reimburse the cost to the city. The Central Arkansas Library System is also beginning a hotspot checkout program.

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He also said five city community centers in neighborhoods most in need would be made “virtual learning centers,” with broadband to serve students who might need a place other than home to access the Internet. They also can be used by groups of parents who’ve organized “learning pods” for virtual school rather than in-person classes. They’ll be staffed by the city. They are not ready to open yet but are being prepared.

The city is studying the use of more facilities and also hoping to find outdoor places that can be used. Arkansas Children’s Hospital, for example, is going to allow the use of its parking lot as an Internet access point.

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Barth said the local school districts believe they have acquired sufficient numbers of Chromebooks or similar devices to ensure every public school student has a device necessary for Internet use.

The group has worked to provide universal access to a computerized literacy program and to expand a virtual tutoring program, with financial help from the Walton Family Foundation, which is also supporting the library hotspot checkout program.

It also was announced that UAMS’ psychiatric institute has a free telephone helpline for people suffering emotional stress during the pandemic. It will help with mental health and substance abuse problems. Services will be provided virtually.