The city of Little Rock is rolling out new initiatives to make access to online learning easier for students should schools pivot to remote learning because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Mayor Frank Scott Jr. announced several projects at a news conference Thursday, including plans to install high-speed broadband internet at five community centers to be used by students for remote learning.
Little Rock’s Chief Education Officer Dr. Jay Barth said the project will be funded by money alloted from the $2 trillion CARES Act.
"These are going to be in place as socially distant spaces in case we come to a point where true community spread has not occurred, but a certain school may close and we may need to allow some subset of students to come to those virtual learning spaces, use that broadband so they can learn during the day in a safe environment," Barth said.
Barth said the school district is also partnering with the Central Arkansas Library System and AR Kids Read to offer enhanced tutoring services for math and reading. Additionally, the Arkansas Regional Innovation Hub will offer free virtual classes in both English and Spanish aimed at parents looking to increase their digital literacy skills.
Barth said the City of Little Rock will also distribute 1,000 portable WiFi hot spots to students in both the Little Rock and Pulaski County Special school districts.
"We know that a number of students in both districts are of course learning at home now, and so they need high quality internet. We also know that we have to prepare for contingencies. Certain schools may have to close for some period of time, and everyone in that school may need to go home for a little while. So we wanted to be fully prepared," Barth said.
Little Rock School Superintendent Mike Poore said the district has also purchased 2,500 hot spots at a cost of roughly $20 per device, as well receiving an additional 500 hot spots from the state.
"We now are working with the city to increase another 1,000 hot spots in a partnership. And it’s a partnership, we’re both pitching in, which is so cool to make sure that we’re taking care of needs," Poore said.
The city of Little Rock is also partnering with the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences to offer a free, 24/7 telehealth service for Arkansans dealing with mental health and substance abuse issues. Dr. Rick Smith, director of the UAMS Psychiatric Research Institute, said recent studies show more than 28% of the population are experiencing symptoms of depression; a more than three-fold increase from before the pandemic.
"Those most affected were those with lower social resources, lower economic resources and greater exposure to stressors such as job loss. And I can tell you, from our experience at UAMS and the Psychiatric Research Institute, these increases in depression are also applicable to anxiety, substance abuse and other traumatic conditions," Smith said.
The service, called AR-Connect, is available by calling (501) 526-3563 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.