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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: 293542

Reported Deaths: 6638
CountyCasesDeaths
DeSoto19560229
Hinds18674385
Harrison16512276
Rankin12595262
Jackson12451217
Lee9663160
Madison9400195
Jones7891145
Forrest7140136
Lauderdale6784225
Lowndes6008137
Lamar584480
Lafayette5707113
Washington5159128
Bolivar4594120
Oktibbeha439991
Panola426892
Pearl River4116128
Warren4114113
Pontotoc407368
Marshall399492
Monroe3980126
Union392873
Neshoba3767166
Lincoln3464100
Hancock339973
Leflore3358118
Sunflower317185
Tate300874
Pike298393
Scott292567
Alcorn290360
Itawamba288871
Yazoo283862
Tippah275665
Copiah274557
Coahoma272766
Simpson271778
Prentiss268658
Leake251770
Wayne251340
Marion250778
Covington247878
Grenada245876
Adams233277
George230645
Newton224751
Winston220275
Jasper211844
Tishomingo211765
Attala206269
Chickasaw200650
Holmes181670
Clay178149
Stone171429
Tallahatchie169839
Clarke168671
Calhoun156428
Smith151831
Yalobusha142936
Greene126833
Walthall123540
Noxubee122729
Perry121434
Montgomery121237
Lawrence119321
Carroll117623
Amite110832
Webster109929
Jefferson Davis100531
Tunica98623
Claiborne97729
Benton93124
Humphreys91626
Kemper89522
Quitman77014
Franklin75519
Choctaw69516
Wilkinson62226
Jefferson61427
Sharkey48817
Issaquena1676
Unassigned00

Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Cases: 491110

Reported Deaths: 9831
CountyCasesDeaths
Jefferson706291356
Mobile35894721
Madison32255442
Tuscaloosa23996409
Montgomery22462494
Shelby21820215
Baldwin19670274
Lee14900150
Morgan13599249
Calhoun13175285
Etowah13143319
Marshall11226206
Houston10048259
Elmore9337183
Limestone9335134
Cullman8869179
St. Clair8783220
Lauderdale8581210
DeKalb8429174
Talladega7481163
Walker6504251
Jackson6477102
Autauga620389
Blount6086125
Colbert5978118
Coffee5230102
Dale4621106
Russell401831
Franklin397876
Covington3956106
Chilton384298
Escambia377172
Tallapoosa3572141
Clarke342949
Dallas3397141
Chambers3392108
Pike293071
Lawrence281384
Marion280894
Winston246166
Bibb244260
Geneva238670
Marengo233354
Pickens223954
Barbour209951
Hale208868
Fayette199756
Butler195165
Henry182041
Cherokee176438
Monroe165938
Randolph163140
Washington156634
Crenshaw143554
Clay143354
Macon140943
Cleburne136839
Lamar131732
Lowndes130648
Wilcox120825
Bullock116336
Conecuh106523
Perry105327
Sumter98431
Coosa87823
Greene87032
Choctaw54823
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