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Educators Aim for Long-Term Solution to Internet Access

  • When the Cleveland Metropolitan School District was forced to close its schools because of the coronavirus, the district had to scramble to distribute 13,000 computer devices and nearly 9,000 hotspots to students who did not have access to computers or the internet.  

    The 38,000-student school district was not alone in this effort, as urban school districts across the nation transitioned to remote learning. For Cleveland, however, the task was harder because the city ranks high on the list of those with families that do not have  fixed internet access.

    According to Cleveland Schools Chief Executive Officer Eric Gordon, the city is the fourth worst-connected city in the nation, with more than 9,000 families lacking a high-speed connection, a computer, or a tablet. “We are ground zero,” said Gordon during a recent forum on bridging Cleveland’s education digital divide. City Club CEO Dan Moulthrop interviews Cleveland CEO Eric Gordon

    Gordon, who also chairs the Council of the Great City Schools, says that in talking to his peers across the nation he learned that the lack of internet access for students is a huge problem. As chair of the Council, he is spearheading a national movement to close what he refers to as “the internet gap” and make Wi-Fi access part of the national infrastructure in the country.

    “We’re working as a national coalition to make sure that this becomes, through state and federal advocacy, an infrastructure solution and not simply a temporary solution that ends when the crisis we are in ends; but that we use this as an opportunity to once and for all solve a national problem,” said Gordon. “We have to switch [internet access] from a luxury some people have to a public utility, just like we did when electricity was new 100 years ago.”

    On the local front, Gordon is working with Digital C, a nonprofit organization in Cleveland, to provide district families throughout the district -- low-cost internet access. Under the partnership, the district would pay $16 per month per home to connect every family to internet service by 2022, according to an article in The 74.  

    Dallas Launches Operation Connectivity

    When Dallas Independent School District had to close its schools due to the coronavirus, an estimated 36,000 district households had no internet connectivity. The district was able to distribute 15,800 mobile hotspots to families, and while every student who has requested a mobile hotspot has received one so far, district officials project an additional 6,000 mobile hotspots will be needed.

    Dallas Schools Superintendent Michael Hinojosa believes the mobile hotspots are a great short-term solution, but that reliable and faster broadband internet connectivity for all families is a necessary long-term solution. He has since launched an initiative called “Operation Connectivity” to address both the lack of high-speed internet access and home laptops for Dallas students.

    The initiative became so popular that Texas Gov. Greg Abbott recently announced a statewide initiative, also called Operation Connectivity, to provide internet to hundreds of thousands of students statewide.

    Leading the implementation of the initiative are the Operation Connectivity Task Force, chaired by Hinojosa, and the Texas Education Agency Commissioner. This team will gather information to determine which children in the state do not have internet access and/or home devices, document best practices, identify and secure technology solutions for broadband and devices, develop actionable playbooks for districts across the state, identify funding needs, and help secure resources.

    In addition, the task force will advocate for federal- and state-level policies that connect more students who are learning at home to available technology resources.

    Launching the initiative, Abbott applauded Hinojosa and the Dallas school district for developing the program for Dallas schools. 

    "As Texas students continue their education at home through virtual instruction, it is essential that we provide them with the resources they need to connect and communicate online," said Abbott in a press release. "I look forward to expanding Operation Connectivity statewide so that we can implement reliable and effective solutions that will close the digital divide for students across the Lone Star State."

    All Detroit Students to Get Connected

    When the Detroit Community School District shifted to remote learning, it discovered that only 10 percent of students accessed the school system’s online platform and learning materials.

    District officials attributed the low number of students logging online due to a lack of internet access and computer devices in students’ homes. They estimated that approximately 90 percent of the district’s students needed computer devices and internet connectivity.

    So the district partnered with a group of business and nonprofit organizations, including the DTE Energy Foundation, Quicken Loans Community Fund and the Skillman Foundation, and recently announced that all 51,000 students in Detroit schools will receive wireless tablets and internet access through a $23 million investment. 

    The money will fund the Connected Futures Project, which will make LTE-enabled (wireless) tablets available for all students before the end of the 2019-2020 school year. These devices will include six months of free LTE data to connect students without wired internet connections at home. The computers will become the property of the students, whose families must sign an agreement to ensure online participation is monitored.

    The tablets will be delivered to Detroit schools in June and distributed to students through their schools or through the district’s Grab and Go food locations.

    Students will receive technical support for activating their new devices and data at home, and the district’s IT department is preparing instructional videos.

    Wi-Fi access will be provided free for six months, and after that period the district plans to partner with the City of Detroit and a local nonprofit to help families sign up for low-cost internet service through Comcast Internet Essentials. Through this service, families will have to pay less than $10 per month for broadband. The district also will continue to purchase Wi-Fi access for students from economically disadvantaged families, as well as for homeless and foster care students.

    “This is an unprecedented investment to immediately address an unprecedented crisis,” said Detroit Schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti in a press release announcing the investment. “The district needed an at-scale, immediate response; and the business and non-profit communities stepped up as true advocates of children, families, and traditional public education.”

    According to Crain’s Detroit Business, $17 million will be spent to buy the computer tablets and $6 million to provide internet access.

    Students will be encouraged to bring their devices to school in the fall. Within the next two years, the district plans to shift to a one-to-one, student-to-device ratio, which will require online learning at home, and textbooks and workbooks to be replaced with laptops and tablets.

    Vitti believes the Connected Future Project will permanently change the school system. "We will see fewer textbooks, we will see fewer workbooks, lighter backpacks," Vitti said in an interview with USA Today. "I envision students having a laptop or tablet that they use throughout the day. Instead of writing in a notebook, I see them using that laptop throughout the day. I see them bringing it home. I see more assignments and homework linked to online learning."