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

When schools switched to virtual learning, there was a huge effort to get students in need connected online. But parents in Oakland, California, found they needed more than just technology. CNN's Evan McMorris-Santoro reports.

Posted: Jan 24, 2021 7:30 PM
Updated: Jan 24, 2021 7:30 PM

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."

Mississippi Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 313942

Reported Deaths: 7240
CountyCasesDeaths
DeSoto21580258
Hinds20330415
Harrison17879309
Rankin13594278
Jackson13429246
Madison10088217
Lee9970174
Jones8370163
Forrest7670152
Lauderdale7188241
Lowndes6387146
Lamar622486
Lafayette6184118
Washington5332133
Bolivar4801132
Oktibbeha462198
Panola4582106
Pearl River4506146
Marshall4435103
Warren4386121
Pontotoc420172
Monroe4107133
Union410076
Neshoba4030176
Lincoln3962110
Hancock378486
Leflore3493125
Sunflower335990
Tate333384
Pike3316105
Scott315773
Alcorn312768
Yazoo311469
Itawamba299777
Copiah296865
Coahoma295179
Simpson294988
Tippah288168
Prentiss279760
Adams278782
Marion269080
Leake267473
Wayne262641
Grenada261386
Covington258281
George247848
Newton246261
Winston227081
Tishomingo226667
Jasper221048
Attala214273
Chickasaw207757
Holmes188873
Clay185254
Stone182433
Tallahatchie178541
Clarke177980
Calhoun170532
Yalobusha164238
Smith162334
Walthall133945
Greene130533
Lawrence128524
Montgomery126742
Noxubee126734
Perry126338
Amite123042
Carroll121828
Webster114532
Jefferson Davis107033
Tunica105226
Claiborne102430
Benton99525
Humphreys96533
Kemper95728
Franklin83623
Quitman80716
Choctaw76318
Wilkinson67230
Jefferson65528
Sharkey50217
Issaquena1686
Unassigned00

Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Cases: 531404

Reported Deaths: 10985
CountyCasesDeaths
Jefferson765501522
Mobile41036805
Madison34789503
Tuscaloosa25788453
Montgomery24340589
Shelby23449249
Baldwin21154308
Lee15882171
Calhoun14511314
Morgan14306279
Etowah13843353
Marshall12232223
Houston10570281
Elmore10068205
Limestone9974151
Cullman9676194
St. Clair9661243
Lauderdale9427241
DeKalb8831186
Talladega8227176
Walker7241277
Autauga6926108
Jackson6814112
Blount6678137
Colbert6306134
Coffee5519119
Dale4838111
Russell441538
Chilton4296112
Franklin426082
Covington4129118
Tallapoosa4023152
Escambia393677
Chambers3573123
Dallas3551152
Clarke351161
Marion3122101
Pike310977
Lawrence300398
Winston274473
Bibb260964
Geneva250477
Marengo249564
Pickens234461
Barbour231057
Hale223077
Butler216069
Fayette212562
Henry188844
Cherokee185245
Randolph180542
Monroe177540
Washington167339
Macon159650
Clay156756
Crenshaw152557
Cleburne148941
Lamar142535
Lowndes138853
Wilcox127130
Bullock122841
Conecuh110529
Perry107726
Coosa107628
Sumter104732
Greene92534
Choctaw60724
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