Families find throwing laptops and Wi-Fi at students isn’t enough to bridge digital divide

Every education expert knew that when the pandemic shuttered school buildings last March, America’s persistent digital divide would be a huge problem. A 2017 US Senate report found 12 million children didn’t have access to broadband internet at home. And administrators across the country warned that even students who had access may not have enough devices or a reliable enough connection to go to school online.

It was a huge problem, but one that appeared to have a relatively easy solution — governments, philanthropies and tech companies banded together to push out hundreds of thousands of devices to students who didn’t have them. Governments and internet service providers worked to provide reduced-cost or free broadband connections and Wi-Fi hotspots to families who couldn’t afford them.

Ten months into this pandemic, there’s now evidence that those measures were not enough to close the gap. Failing grades are rising in school districts across the country and attendance is an enduring problem. The impact is hardest felt among underserved students — those who are poorer or minorities.

One parents’ group in Oakland, California, has an idea of what went wrong. Simply dropping off a laptop and a hotspot just isn’t enough, they’ve found.

“We don’t appreciate just how much of a steep curve that this is for families,” Lakisha Young, a founder of Oakland REACH, told CNN. “We’re not having enough conversations about tech support, tech trainings, workshops, putting parents in a power position around technology.”

Oakland REACH provides intensive tech support for families who may be trying to use internet tools for the first time. Without that, Young says, the shiny new laptops and hotspots may just sit in the box they came in. And even if they don’t, the frustration over using technology that Americans with more means may take for granted can lead those who are unfamiliar with it to throw up their hands.

Connie Williams is one of the caregivers REACH works with. She is a strong advocate for her grandkids, who are all students in Oakland schools. She knows what it takes to be a good student, and she drives the children in her house to those goals. But she doesn’t know much about computers, and when school shifted online, it was a challenge.

“It was very frustrating, very frustrating, because I have very little knowledge of computer technology,” she told CNN. “But here I am: grandparent-slash-teacher now. So I got to get up to speed.”

Williams recalls how her grandkids came undone because they needed help with the digital tools their education now requires and Williams wasn’t able to help them.

“I’m in tears. I’m crying. My babies come snotting and crying to me,” she said. “And they’re like ‘Grandma, this is just too much.’ And I said, ‘I know it’s too much because it’s too much for me.'”

REACH gives people like Williams an intensive tech support program, as well as a dedicated person who checks in regularly and makes sure things are running smoothly. Young said some families they work with have never set up an email account or used a system like Zoom. It can take a long time to get people comfortable with technology that seems daunting to first-timers, she said.

REACH’s program worked for Williams and, according to Young, it’s worked for a lot of other families in Williams’ situation.

But it takes a lot of resources to do what REACH does. And not every student’s family can get access to that kind of assistance.

And so, as American students head toward the second half of this pandemic school year, Young says the lasting digital divide means a lot of students are going to be left behind.

“I definitely think that there’s going to be significant learning loss, especially where folks have not adapted to providing innovative and creative ways to really, really support families holistically,” she said. “It’s just really hard.”

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