Mar 10 2021

Cities and Counties Help Students Learn Online with Computers, Broadband Access

Local CIOs fielded devices to students to facilitate remote learning during the coronavirus crisis.

In Minneapolis, as in so many cities, kids need devices, families need connectivity and schools need help to bridge the gap. As schools in the city struggle to reopen, government technology leaders are teaming with the school district to ease the technology burdens that come with remote learning.

“It’s truly a partnership between the city of Minneapolis, Hennepin County and Minneapolis Public Schools,” says Dana Nybo, deputy director of IT collaboration services in the office of the city’s CIO. “We are trying to address the digital inequities holistically, with everyone working together.”

Nybo isn’t alone. Around the nation, city governments have offered resources and expertise to help school districts close a digital divide that the pandemic has made all too apparent.

Minneapolis Partners with a Nonprofit to Get Students Devices 

Nybo’s office has helped to connect schools to the nonprofit PCs for People, which distributes donated computers to those in need. That effort has put 540 computers, including Dell laptops and desktops along with Apple iPad devices, into play this year in Minneapolis.

“Most recently, we donated 250 devices from the city, and we also are reaching out to Fortune 500 companies based in Minneapolis to have them direct their devices to PCs for People as well,” Nybo says.

Working together, the city, the school district and the nonprofit are able to provide devices in support of remote learning, along with needed technical assistance. The city helps to identify potential recipients, and “PCs for People can get the devices into the hands of the people who need them,” Nybo says. “Then they stay in touch for the long term with tech support for the families that need it.”

Connectivity has been a hot issue as well, and Minneapolis stepped up to help schools deliver the broadband needed to keep students learning at home. Nybo’s office has served as an intermediary, negotiating for internet services in support of students learning at home.

“We brought together all the wired and mobile providers. We had Comcast and Sprint and Verizon at the table, along with our local provider. We said, ‘Here’s the problem. What can be done?’” Nybo says.

Some providers already had broadband offerings for families in need, “but those offers were not working for the community. The service wasn’t reaching the marginalized communities,” Nybo says. “A carrier might have translated materials, but they weren’t reaching the Hmong and Somali communities. We were able to step in and help with that.”

As the result of those discussions, the local provider, U.S. Internet, offered free internet for the school year for families who needed it. “The city was really the one who brought the situation to light,” Nybo says. “By working together, the city and the school district and the county were able to bring the problem to the providers — a problem they already knew about — and show how it had been amplified under COVID.”

EXPLORE: How are cities forging partnerships to close the digital divide?

Frederick County Provides Funding for Chromebooks 

Meanwhile, in Maryland’s Frederick County, CIO Tom Dixon has likewise been working in support of his school district’s technology needs.

“During the pandemic, the Frederick County Public Schools IT organization has been stretched, trying to pivot to an online schooling situation,” he says.

To help remedy the situation, the county allocated an additional $2 million to the public schools. That money was largely earmarked for the purchase of Google Chromebooks, and the CIO’s office was instrumental in making those available at a time when devices were in short supply nationwide.

“Since it was county money being spent, my office coordinated the procurement. We dealt with CDW•G, we submitted the purchase order and made sure the order was delivered, and the Chromebooks went straight to the FCPS IT organization,” Dixon says.

Santa Clara County Confronts the Digital Divide 

In California’s Santa Clara County, the county government has a separate office set up to foster educational initiatives, including fulfilling device needs. The Santa Clara County Office of Education supports 31 school districts, leveraging county resources in support of a range of educational needs.

The office also has partnered with the county board of supervisors and the county executive to generate $7.1 million in county funding to help address digital equity issues for the most vulnerable families.

“We have used the funds primarily for devices, including Chromebooks and iPads and protective cases, as well as for connectivity and creative infrastructure solutions,” says Superintendent Mary Ann Dewan.

The county also is working to close the broadband gap. The county has developed a long-term plan for addressing the issue, and in the meantime Dixon’s office has convened with local internet providers to find a short-term solution.

20%

The percentage of ­administrator and teacher respondents who considered their schools “very ­prepared to implement remote learning.”

Source: Promethean, “The 2020 State Of Technology in Education,” October 2020

“We are working with Comcast and with the governor’s rural broadband office, which is offering grant funding for broadband projects, trying to provide some near-term relief, at least for a limited number of homes,” Dixon says. “But it’s a widespread problem, and it will take a period of years and a large investment of public finds to fully address this problem across the entire county.”

In Santa Clara County, the pandemic brought connectivity issues to the fore.

“Even before COVID, we supported internet infrastructure and technology supports writ large. During COVID, that need increased exponentially,” Dewan explains.

As part of the county’s COVID-19 response, the office is piloting a number of connectivity efforts, including “the buildout of private CBRS/LTE networks as an alternative to having students use hotspots in areas where cellular providers lack coverage,” says David Wu, CTO for the SCCOE.

“Cumulative hotspot costs can be quite high, especially if provided to a significant portion of the student population,” he says. “If you build and scale a private CBRS/LTE network, you can potentially save some costs over time and you can increase coverage in areas where it doesn’t exist.”

Illustration By victor koen