A worker passes public school buses parked at a depot in Manchester, N.H., Monday, April 27, 2020. Credit: Charles Krupa | AP

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The Maine Department of Education is helping 24,000 students across the state connect to the internet using newly received federal funding.

At the end of April, Maine received more than $53 million in federal aid through two separate grants under the Coronavirus Aid Relief and Economic Security Act, signed into law on March 27 by President Donald Trump.

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The Department of Education said it will use the approximately $9.3 million it received through the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund to purchase and distribute Wi-Fi hotspots and devices such as laptops and tablets after the state determined that uneven internet access was the top problem for students as schools closed and switched to remote learning to control the spread of the coronavirus.

Through a survey, the state determined that 24,000 students — about 13 percent of the state’s 180,000 public school students — couldn’t connect to the internet either because they had no connection or needed a device to connect. Almost 16,000 lacked a wireless connection and about 8,000 needed a device, according to the Department of Education.

“Together we recognized that what was once a concerning inequity quickly became a humanitarian crisis during this unprecedented emergency, with lack of access for so many students to the educational resources and experiences offered by our schools,” Maine’s education commissioner, Pender Makin, said in a statement.

The Department of Education has purchased more than 14,000 internet-enabled tablets, spokeswoman Kelli Deveaux said. Districts can choose either to have students use the tablets as learning tools or limit their capabilities and use them only as a source of wireless internet.

The department has also ordered about 7,500 Chromebooks for students who were lacking devices. Both the tablets and Chromebooks will be shipped directly to the school districts that need them, Deveaux said.

Some turned to fundraising to provide students with internet access before the federal funding became available. Bangor raised more than $60,000 to purchase mobile hotspots for about 350 students who lacked internet access. In early April, the Department of Education delivered 500 internet-enabled tablets to schools in Piscataquis County made possible through donations.

Of this latest batch of coronavirus relief funding from the federal government, the majority — about $43.8 million from the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund — will flow to school districts across the state so they can use it as emergency relief.

“These funds are desperately needed by our schools, as they have suddenly been tasked with finding ways to continue to provide for the educational, social/emotional and nutritional needs of their students,” Eileen King, deputy executive director of the Maine School Management Association, said. “Maine superintendents have expressed serious concerns about the lack of equity of access for many of our students that seriously impacts our students’ ability to participate in remote learning. These funds can certainly begin to address this issue.”

Watch: Maine CDC coronavirus press conference, May 5

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