Digital Divide in Schools

By Conor Morris

With basically every school district in Cuyahoga County returning to school in a remote-only format this month and next as COVID-19 continues to ravage Northeast Ohio, school districts are currently in a mad dash to prepare students and families for a remote-only learning experience.

By multiple estimates, Cleveland is one of the worst-connected large cities in the country. The COVID-19 pandemic in the spring revealed a glaring divide: Two-thirds of students at the largest school district in the city, Cleveland Metropolitan School District, didn’t have access to a device, and 40 percent of families didn’t have Internet access at home, according to a survey of parents conducted by CMSD after schools shut down in Ohio last March.

Yet the pandemic continues. The district has purchased or ordered a total of about 27,000 laptops and tablets and about 13,500 WiFi hotspots (for a school district with an enrollment of about 40,000 students) as many Northeast Ohio schools, including CMSD, chose to return to remote classes for the fall. That’s come at a significant expense. The district has paid about $11 million for the devices and $3 million for the hotspots and one-year worth of data, funded through a mix of school funds, federal CARES Act money and grants, according to a CMSD spokesperson.

By the time the districts’ remote-only classes begin this month, CMSD CEO Eric Gordon said the district will be close to a “one-to-one environment,” with one device for every student that needs one.

It’s an immediate solution that school districts across the country are racing to achieve as the school reopens in the fall. Chicago Public Schools, for example, recently announced a $50 million program to bring free Internet access to 100,000 CPS students over the next four years (funded by the likes of philanthropists and Michelle and Barack Obama).

In Greater Cleveland, Cuyahoga County and the Cleveland Foundation recently announced a $4 million program, in partnership with T-Mobile, to provide 10,000 computers and 7,500 Wi-Fi hotspots to student families.

Catherine Tkachyk, chief innovation officer for Cuyahoga County, said the hotspots will be rolled out to families at school districts across the Greater Cleveland area over the next two years, while the county is working with non-profit PCs for People to provide as many devices as possible before school starts.

PC’s for People Salvaging business Electronics.

Gordon with CMSD said it’s important to keep in mind that Cleveland’s issues with Internet access are not limited to the realm of K-12 education.

“When we shut down in Ohio, we told people, ‘go home, stay at home, apply for unemployment online, apply for jobs online, go to school online, go to your doctor online,’” Gordon explained. “We need to broaden this conversation…. This is not (just) a school problem, this is a problem of the Internet not being a public utility in this country.”

Bearing that in mind, CMSD has become an “anchor” for an innovative project that could change the landscape of Cleveland’s digital divide.

Announced earlier this year, CMSD will pay Cleveland nonprofit DigitalC to extend high-speed Internet services to thousands of CMSD families, targeting parts of the city where the digital divide is the worst.

The first goal, according to DigitalC CEO Dorothy Baunach, is to bring Internet services through an innovative fixed-wireless system to 1,000 CMSD households before the school year starts (which will be paid for by CMSD while families have CMSD students in the household).

The mid-term goal is for 8,400 additional households to be connected by June 2021, with an eventual goal of connecting any remaining families who need the Internet by the 2022-2023 school year (potentially about 16,000-17,000 households).

“To get to those 16,000 households, the capacity of the full network will actually be around 27,000 households,” Baunach explained, noting that DigitalC will be able to serve non-student homes as well. “…When the technology is headed into the neighborhood it doesn’t know who lives in the houses, it just knows if you can reach it or not.”

Conor Morris is a corps member with Report for America. You can find him on Twitter at @condormorris, or email him at cmorris@advance-ohio.com. This story is sponsored by the Northeast Ohio Solutions Journalism Collaborative, which is composed of 16-plus Greater Cleveland news outlets including (partner’s name).

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