Sep 09 2020

Schools and Governments Partner to Bridge Digital Divide

Local governments are working with school districts to provide Wi-Fi hotspots for students resuming remote learning.

As school districts in much of the country prepare to resume some form of instruction — much of it remote due to the coronavirus pandemic — in the coming weeks, many have partnered out of necessity with local governments to help their students. Governments are working with school districts to procure and distribute Wi-Fi hotspots and other equipment to help students get and stay connected for schoolwork.

The pandemic has shined a spotlight on the country’s continuing digital divide, between those who can easily access broadband internet and those who cannot. Local governments across the country have helped fill the chasm by working with school districts to ensure students will have reliable connectivity as classes resume.

Some localities have taken a more systematic approach to addressing the digital divide than others. However, they are all taking action to ensure children in their communities have adequate internet access. As Fast Company reports, many school districts are using funds from the $2.2 trillion The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act Congress passed in March. The publication reports:

Many school districts have purchased and handed out 4G wireless hotspots, or have paid for discount wired internet services for low-income families, such as Comcast’s $9.95-per-month Internet Essentials package, which is now connecting about 200,000 students. Other communities are expanding free internet services by setting up public hotspots around cities, inviting families to access Wi-Fi from school parking lots, or even dispatching Wi-Fi-equipped buses to neighborhoods with a dearth of home service.

How Governments and Schools Are Teaming Up to Provide Broadband

The situation in much of the country is dire in terms of access to broadband. As Fast Company notes, according to a new study by Common Sense Media, of the country’s 51 million K–12 students, “up to 15 million either had no home broadband service or lack service that can handle the demands of online classes, such as hours of videoconferencing per day.” Additionally, up to 400,000 teachers “also lack adequate connections,” Fast Company reports.

Communities are tackling the problem in varying ways, with some providing at-home internet access to students free of charge and others offering hotspots and other more limited solutions.

For an example of a more systematic fix, in Chattanooga, Tenn., the city and the school district in Hamilton County, where Chattanooga is the county seat, have struck a partnership whereby the “municipally owned power and telecom provider EPB will provide more than 28,000 students with free high-speed internet service at home,” Smart Cities Dive reports.

The program is aimed at low-income students who qualify for the federal free or reduced-price meal programs at school. Two-thirds of the students in Hamilton County fall into that category, according to Smart Cities Dive. Households that qualify for the program will receive a free router and access to broadband with download speeds of 100 megabits per second.

In neighboring Kentucky, the Daviess County Emergency Management Agency, Daviess County Fiscal Court, Owensboro Public Schools and Daviess County Public Schools are teaming up to give students access to the internet.

The DCEMA and the court are “working with area volunteer fire stations to install routers so that families can have access to Wi-Fi from the parking lot,” the local Messenger-Inquirer newspaper reports.

“The goal here is to ensure that all Daviess County students have access to the internet,” DCEMA Director Andy Ball tells the newspaper. “We are looking to install a device that will transmit a signal outside of the building so families can pull into the parking lot and gain access to the assignments or information that the student needs.”

13,500

The number of Wi-Fi hotspots the Cleveland Metropolitan School District has purchased

Source: ideastream.com, "Cleveland-Area Schools Scramble To Bridge Digital Divide As Semester Starts," Aug. 19, 2020

Meanwhile, the Allentown (Pa.) School District is spending $844,080 to buy more than 3,500 hotspots to give students access to broadband speeds. The district has applied for a state grant through the Department of Community and Economic Development to cover the cost of the hotspots, according to The Morning Call.

“The money to buy the hotspots is coming out of the district’s technology budget. If the district does receive the grant, it will use it to reimburse the technology budget,” the newspaper reports.

In neighboring Ohio, the Cleveland Metropolitan School District is working to close a yawning digital divide in a district where 40 percent of households lacked internet access in March, according to a report from the Northeast Ohio Solutions Journalism Collaborative.

The district has “purchased or ordered a total of about 27,000 laptops and tablets and about 13,500 Wi-Fi hotspots — for a school district with an enrollment of about 40,000 students,” the report notes. “CMSD paid about $11 million for the devices and another $3 million for the hotspots and one year worth of data, using a mix of school funds, federal CARES Act money and grants,” the report adds, according to a CMSD spokesperson.

The efforts underscore how much of an issue bridging the digital divide has become, and the pandemic has shown how wide the divide still is. Experts say that now is the time to make progress and make sure that all students have access to broadband.

“I hope to never again have a discussion about whether the goal is to have access in the home for everyone,” Christopher Mitchell, director for Community Broadband Networks at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, tells Fast Company. “As recently as last year, we had elected officials say it’s perfectly fine for kids to go to McDonald’s to do their homework. I think that part of the argument is done.”

MORE FROM STATETECH: Find out how New York City is working to bridge the digital divide for seniors.

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