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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Jefferson County Public Schools will distribute 6,050 hotspots with unlimited data to families with special needs students as Kentucky's largest school district transitions to non-traditional instruction next week as part of the state's efforts to limit the spread of COVID-19.

Superintendent Marty Pollio said Wednesday that JCPS will contact special education households with instructions on how to request the hotspots, which cost $871,200 through a three-month contract with T-Mobile.

The offer for unlimited data dovetails with the district's distribution of 25,000 Chromebooks, first available to families that have special needs students and those who receive free or reduced-price meals.

More than 15,000 families have requested Chromebooks so far with "many more" expected, Pollio said. JCPS extended the deadline for eligible families to request one to 5 p.m. Thursday, giving households two additional days to ask for Chromebooks.

Pollio said the district hopes to "reduce the opportunity gap" by offering technology and internet connectivity to households in need. The Kentucky Department of Education has said it's important to maintain services for special education students as school districts across the state close until at least April 20, Pollio said.

"We're going to look long-term, too, to reduce this digital divide and find ways that we can get this to more students in the months to come," Pollio said, noting that JCPS may purchase additional data hotspots to connect students to the internet.

In a webinar with state superintendents and special education coordinators on Tuesday, KDE Associate Commissioner Gretta Hylton said that federal requirements of special education laws remain in effect as districts transition to distance learning. Many of Kentucky's 172 school districts have already begun their non-traditional instruction programs, with JCPS set to begin its remote learning platform on April 7.

"We have to ensure that we're providing (Free Appropriate Public Education)," Hylton said during the video conference, according to KDE. "That doesn't go away just because we're educating students differently. However, it does become very challenging."

That includes following students' individual education programs, or IEPs, as best as possible during the ongoing global COVID-19 pandemic. If services can't be offered virtually or by phone, Hylton said districts should be sure those are documented.

"If students miss services or they're unable to make adequate progress, then the only remedy for that when we come to the other side is compensatory education," she said.

Pollio has said it's unclear exactly how many households in JCPS lack access to technology like the internet, a point he reiterated Wednesday.

"We know a vast majority of our students do have WiFi access when we look at their cell phone," he said. "What we don't know is how many have limited data or enough WiFi capability to have this online instruction."

The district believes some, if not all, of the cost to provide mobile hotspots will be covered in the $2.2 trillion federal stimulus bill in response to the COVID-19 outbreak, Pollio said. Other community groups -- James Graham Brown Foundation, C.E. and S. Foundation, One Louisville and others -- "have stepped up" and offered their financial support for whatever isn't covered by the stimulus package, he said.

"We will want to be using a great deal of (federal) funding for that when we are able to get it, but we also knew we could not just stand by and wait," Pollio said.

The district also announced plans to provide resources to other families during the suspension of in-person classes, such as:

  • Instructional resources for homeless students through Louisville-area shelters and organizations like Volunteers of America and Kentucky Refugee Ministries
  • Interpreting services in 14 different languages to support students learning English
  • Kindergarten readiness materials for 3,300 students in the district's early childhood program for April 6-10
  • A fund, accessible on the district's website, to purchase additional Chromebooks for the 2020-21 school year that has raised $30,000 so far through donations from Passport Health Plan, Help US Grow Foundation and Joy Hardesty

Those who qualify for Chromebooks can either request one online or by calling 313-HELP. If any are left over, the district plans to distribute them through a lottery system.

Chromebooks will be shipped directly to households that receive them.

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