JACKSON • Mississippi lawmakers on Wednesday discussed how much coronavirus relief funding could be spent to improve distance learning for the state’s educational institutions.

Several Senate committees hosted a joint distance learning hearing, where multiple educational leaders all reiterated one thing that is needed for online learning to be successful – a quality connection to the internet.

Carey Wright, the state superintendent of education, told legislators that she is certain students will likely not spend 100% of their time in front of a physical teacher if another wave of COVID-19 emerges in the fall.

“Everything that we’re hearing and reading says that we are going to be in this situation again, fall to late fall,” Wright said of the virus. “I don’t think there’s anybody medically that’s not saying that. So we need to be prepared for this, but we need to be prepared for this period.”

Wright went on to say that the silver lining she believes that has come out of the pandemic is the issue that all children should have access to a high-quality education regardless of where they live. This means ensuring that students have access to the internet to receive education materials.

“It’s not just a K-12 issue – it’s an education issue,” Wright said.

Currently, the Federal Communications Commission sets the minimum download speed for broadband at 25 megabytes per second and an upload speed of 3 megabytes per second. Under these guidelines, around 84% of Mississippians have access to this speed, according to data from broadbandnow.com, a broadband advocacy website for consumers. This statistic would also mean roughly 476,000 Mississippians do not have access to the basic federal for rural broadband.

The Daily Journal has previously reported that residents in Northeast Mississippi that don’t have access to rural broadband are forced to travel long distances to complete assignments for school or work.

Al Rankins, the commissioner of higher education for Mississippi, told legislators that several universities in the state reported that their students were forced to complete coursework by using their cellphones or were even forced to travel to parking lots near fast food restaurants to use their WiFi.

“I can tell you I witnessed this twice at Walmart,” Rankins said. “I pulled up beside a car that had students sitting in the car. They had their textbooks on the dashboard and trying to complete their coursework online.”

Each of the education officials requested that the Legislature provide them with dozens of millions of dollars to help offset the cost of expanding distance learning such as loaning hotspots and laptops to students and teachers.

Mary Graham, the president of Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College told the lawmakers that community colleges have also had to take on costs of expanding online learning, and her college had to loan out 300 laptops. She implored the legislators to help and said broadband is just as “important as water and electricity.”

“The bottom line answer is broadband,” Graham said. “That connectivity is critical for the state of Mississippi.”

The committee hearing is part of a continuing series of hearings that the Legislature is conducting to determine the best way to spend $1.25 billion in federal coronavirus relief funds. Other items that lawmakers are discussing spending the funds on are small businesses and local governing bodies.

The committee did not take any legislation up, but did seem receptive to finding solutions for areas of the state to have access to broadband.

“There’s not a universal way to fix rural broadband,” Senate Energy Chair Joel Carter said. “It’s going to take the private sector working hand in hand to solve this issue. I would encourage the private sector to engage in conversation amongst each other to where we can find a long-term solution.”

taylor.vance@journalinc.com

Twitter: @taylor_vance28

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