Nearly 200 public schools in Georgia are set to receive money for purchasing laptops and software aimed at boosting access to online courses as in-person classes remain suspended due to coronavirus.

Last week, the state Board of Education voted unanimously to distribute roughly $21.5 million in federal grant funds among 55 local school districts that are seeking the money to buy Chromebooks, portable internet hotspots, remote-learning software and more.

The funding is slated for underserved schools in metro Atlanta and rural parts of the state that were struggling with internet access and a lack of electronic devices even before coronavirus prompted public schools to close for the remainder of the 2020 school year.

Georgia public schools stand to receive more than $450 million in emergency funding from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act (CARES), which can be used for a variety of purposes such as helping shore up a local school district’s budget.

Another roughly $105 million in federal emergency funding has been earmarked for Gov. Brian Kemp to give local schools and colleges for remote learning and other resources meant to maintain student studies while in-person classes are prohibited.

Around two million public school students in Georgia have been unable to attend traditional classes since mid-March, when Kemp ordered a statewide closure. Since then, teachers and students have shifted to online classes conducted via video streams and other remote means to finish up the year.

The online method has been hailed as a way for Georgia students to keep up their studies during the pandemic, but many schools are facing resource challenges that the move to remote learning has exacerbated, particularly in rural areas where broadband internet service is spotty.

The U.S. Department of Education recently estimated more than 13% of Georgia’s population does not have access to broadband, while nearly 27% of the state’s students live in rural areas.The need among many underserved schools for better online connectivity and remote learning resources has been overwhelming at times, said Stephanie Johnson, deputy superintendent of school improvement for the Georgia Department of Education.

Speaking at a board meeting Tuesday, Johnson said difficulties have included a shortage of devices and learning software for students in many school districts, as well as internet access.

In some rural areas, school buses equipped with mobile hotspots have been parking near students’ homes to give them an internet connection they would not have had otherwise, Johnson said.

“We realized that sometimes it wasn’t just devices,” Johnson said. “It was access to learning for teachers and students.”

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