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Staff photo by Troy Stolt / Hixson high school JROTC instructor Tony Monnat wipes down a laptop as ISS monitor Cel Reid stands behind him during a back to school Chromebook pick up on Friday, Aug. 7, 2020, in Hixson, Tenn.

About a third of Hamilton County Schools students have so far benefited from a program designed to provide them with free broadband internet.

A fast internet connection became a necessity as teachers worked to keep students learning after schools shut down in March 2020 as the coronavirus pandemic swept across the country. Those who had no internet were in immediate danger of falling behind in their studies.

EdConnect, a partnership between Hamilton County Schools and EPB, includes installation of EPB service with speeds of at least 100 Megabits-per-second in the homes of eligible students. Eligibility for the program requires students to be on free or reduced lunch or whose families receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits.

Launched less than a year ago, as the coronavirus pandemic was shutting down schools across the country, EdConnect has enrolled 14,000 students, as well as their family members, totaling 25,000 people in all.

The district estimates as many as 30,000 students qualify for the program.

"We are showing the rest of the country what it looks like to close the digital divide in education," Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly said in a news release. "HCS EdConnect is a comprehensive solution, and since the partners have made a 10-year commitment to the program, this will be a lasting solution."

Hamilton County Schools and EPB have committed funding of $8.2 million over 10 years, with $7.9 million being raised so far for infrastructure such as additional equipment.

"For the next decade and hopefully beyond, HCS EdConnect will provide high-speed internet access to nearly 30,000 economically disadvantaged students as well as their families, and I'm proud to be part of a community who prioritized closing the digital divide in the midst of global pandemic" Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Bryan Johnson said in a news release. "Private and public partnership was a critical part of this program being possible, and we will continue to seek community partners who can join us in helping all children thrive and experience a future without limits."

Hamilton County Schools resumed classes in a hybrid format in August, with decisions on allowing in-person instruction based in part on use of a phase tracker that monitored community spread of the coronavirus each week. In February, the district moved to phase 3, during which all students returned to in-person learning five days per week, except for fully virtual learners or schools with virus outbreaks.

While most students returned to face-to-face learning by the end of the school year, eligible students will be able to opt into the program and continue access for 10 years or until they are no longer enrolled in HCS.

Contact Anika Chaturvedi at achaturvedi@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592.

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