A coalition of businesses and philanthropic organizations in the city is working to provide every student, kindergarten through 12th grade, with a tablet computer and high-speed Internet access. The program — called Connected Futures and led by DTE Energy, Skillman Foundation, Quicken Loans, the city of Detroit and the school district — is spending $23 million in what Superintendent Nikolai Vitti hailed as “an unprecedented investment to immediately address an unprecedented crisis.”
The Detroit project is only one of many around the country aimed at trying to close the digital divide, which puts millions of students who are already marginalized at even further disadvantage. It is estimated that up to 12 million students — and some of their teachers — don’t have Internet access at home, and many of the 13,000 U.S. school districts don’t have the resources to provide what is needed without outside help.
Rural areas are especially hard-hit, as are high-poverty areas, while schools and families struggle to keep up learning programs with school buildings closed and students at home. The digital divide is not new, but the crisis facing the country has laid bare just how deep and damaging it is.
School districts around the country, such as Miami-Dade in Florida, have been working with local Internet service providers to obtain free or reduced-price Internet connections, and there are efforts on Capitol Hill to provide billions of dollars in new funding to provide access to virtual education to families, schools and libraries.
Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said he developed partnerships with Internet providers to make sure low-income families had affordable service before the covid-19 crisis but went back to Comcast as the impact of the pandemic became clear and asked for free Internet accessibility. The company did, he said.
“It’s not perfect,” he said, “but at this point, I believe we have the most robust distance-learning platform of this magnitude in the country.”
Other districts had other interventions. The school district in South Bend, Ind., said it sent 22 school buses with WiFi to 44 sites across the city to provide Internet access for students who didn’t have it.
In Charleston, S.C., the district also sent out buses with WiFi to various sites, the district said, and announced it had “enhanced” the WiFi signal at many schools “so that access outside of the building is possible.” It also said several Internet providers were offering reduced prices for service.
In various cities, businesses and philanthropic organizations are giving money to school districts to help improve remote-learning accessibility, and this week, the Federal Communications Commission and the U.S. Education Department said they would work with states and school districts to promote the use of billions of dollars provided for K-12 education in the $2 trillion emergency stimulus measure known as the Cares Act.
Congress allocated more than $13 billion for K-12 schools to use to meet issues created by the pandemic, including the purchase of educational technology and to secure Internet access. The act also gives some $3 billion in emergency block grants to governors who can use them however they think best for students, including on remote learning, and it provides $100 million to the U.S. Agriculture Department grant program for the costs of establishing broadband service in rural areas.
The pandemic has lent urgency to a drive on Capitol Hill to create a $2 billion Emergency Connectivity Fund that would further efforts to help schools and libraries improve access to remote learning through new WiFi hotspots, routers and other devices. The fund has the support of dozens of education and other organizations. In a letter to Senate leadership, nearly 20 senators said:
We are concerned that this existing inequity will only be exacerbated by the high number of schools that are suspending in-person classes and have transitioned to remote learning over the Internet to protect the health of students, faculty, and staff. Children without connectivity are at risk of not only being unable to complete their homework during this pandemic, but being unable to continue their overall education. Congress must address this issue by providing additional financial support for home Internet access in the next emergency relief package so that no child falls behind in their education.
In Detroit, Internet service providers said connectivity will be free for low-income families for six months. Then, Vitti said, the district will pay.
Jerry Norcia, president and chief executive of DTE Energy, said his company put the issue of digital inequity for Detroit students at “the top” of its covid-19 relief efforts. “We recognized that we needed to take action urgently to close the digital divide for these students and provide them with the tools necessary to thrive in the 21st century,” he said at a news conference.