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State officials are sending $6 million in federal money to help Georgia schools boost internet connectivity in areas where access to the web is poor.

The money comes as schools across the state hustle to prepare for the start of the 2020-21 school year in the coming days and weeks, with many districts opting to start classes all online amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Among ways for school districts to use the money is for purchasing WiFi transmitters on residential buildings and school buses, which can be located close to students’ homes to give better internet access.

“This initiative will ensure schools and districts are prepared if distance/virtual learning is needed in the future, but will also expand the horizons of thousands of students long after the pandemic ends,” said State School Superintendent Richard Woods in a news release Thursday.

The $6 million allocation is part of federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding that Georgia has received since spring.

The state Department of Education is also partnering with the telecommunications company Verizon to help provide schools in 10 states with discounted internet plans including unlimited cellular broadband access (4G LTE) and software protections.

Georgia’s roughly 1.7 million students switched to online learning in late March as positive cases of the virus began to swell. Since then, officials have debated how to safely return students for in-person classes in the fall and support local efforts to undertake online instruction.

State officials have issued guidelines and recommendations aimed at helping local school districts decide how to hold classes in the fall via a mix of regular in-person classes and online instruction options.

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, including areas of Cherokee County, according to state officials.

Gov. Brian Kemp touted the $6 million as a way to help school districts improve internet access during the pandemic and beyond.

“This is a major step to address the gap for this school year so that all Georgia’s children have access to learning opportunities in and out of school,” Kemp said.

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