As remote-only start looms, schools scramble to fix digital divide

By Conor Morris

This map, provided by Cuyahoga County, shows the various Census tracts in the county layered with data from the 2017 American Community Survey on households’ access to broadband.

This map, provided by Cuyahoga County, shows the various Census tracts in the county layered with data from the 2017 American Community Survey on households’ access to broadband.

With Cleveland Metropolitan School District (CMSD) soon returning to school in a remote-only format, the District is currently in a mad dash to prepare students, teachers and families for their first week of school with the COVID-19 pandemic still raging.

The District has its work cut out for it. By some estimates, Cleveland is one of the worst-connected large cities in the country. The COVID-19 pandemic in spring revealed that two-thirds of students at CMSD 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 after the shutdown.

To combat this, the district  has purchased or ordered a total of about 27,000 laptops and tablets and about 13,500 WiFi hotspots for a total student population of 40,000 students. That’s come at 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 district’s remote-only classes begin this month (for some schools, it’s next week, for others, it’s Sept. 8), 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, but not a perfect one: teachers and student families need to be trained on using the technology, and once these families no longer have a CMSD student, they’ll need to give the equipment back.

School districts across the country are racing to achieve similar results as school reopens this 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).

Meanwhile, 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 WiFi hotspots to student families. 

Catherine Tkachyk, chief innovation officer for Cuyahoga County, said the hotspots and devices are being rolled out to families in school districts across Greater Cleveland through distribution events coordinated between school districts and the nonprofit PCs for People.

Dorothy Baunach, CEO of DigitalC, shows off a receiver device that the nonprofit uses to provide high-speed Internet to residences in neighborhoods that lack Internet access. DigitalC is attempting to get 1,000 Cleveland Metropolitan School District…

Dorothy Baunach, CEO of DigitalC, shows off a receiver device that the nonprofit uses to provide high-speed Internet to residences in neighborhoods that lack Internet access. DigitalC is attempting to get 1,000 Cleveland Metropolitan School District families hooked up with free Internet services before the school year starts. Photo by Conor Morris.

Challenges facing school districts

Eric Gordon says that 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.”

If the Internet were treated like a utility like water or electricity — funded by taxes and protected by further regulations — there wouldn’t be such a problem with a lack of access, advocates like Gordon argue.

Access to free Internet would be a game changer for many CMSD families, including those on a fixed income like Marsha Howard, 71. She’s the sole caregiver for her grandson, who is an incoming fourth-grader at a CMSD school. She said she was not sure how well her grandson will do with remote-only learning for an extended period of time, especially considering the fact that he has a IEP (Individualized Education Plan) because of his learning retention issues. Plus, the laptop she and her grandson received from the district last spring was old and didn’t have the functionality to accomplish some of the tasks teachers asked them to do, she said.

“I don’t really see him doing very well without the help that the IEP is supposed to give him,” Howard said.

She noted that her grandson was meeting with a special education instructor a few times a week, which will now need to be done remotely.

“There are some kids that are just really really into computers and the internet and whatever, he’s a more hands-on… type of person,” Howard said. “He likes to put things together, likes to figure things out with his hands.”

Gordon said CMSD provided 1,300 cameras to its intervention specialists to allow them to work remotely with children with IEPs, invested in teletherapy systems, and is giving specific training to teachers to help students with IEPs remotely. He also said there’s a help desk accessible over the phone or in-person to help parents with tech issues.

Howard also said that she was never offered a WiFi hotspot from the district, despite her lack of income. Gordon said that was likely because families who already had Internet access weren’t offered hotspots, in order to triage those with the greatest need (Howard is paying for Internet already).

“We have a week planned for family-student parent-teacher conferences where we’ll be creating a care plan for each family, assessing their technology needs both for devices and access to high-speed Internet,” Gordon explained.

Jovanti Ramirez, a student at CMSD who has a summer internship with PCs for People, works to sort mice and other devices out of a bin in PCs for People’s warehouse in Cleveland. Photo by Conor Morris.

Jovanti Ramirez, a student at CMSD who has a summer internship with PCs for People, works to sort mice and other devices out of a bin in PCs for People’s warehouse in Cleveland. Photo by Conor Morris.

A new model to bridge the digital divide

Bearing these challenges in mind, CMSD has become an “anchor” for an innovative project that could provide a long-term solution for 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 – neighborhoods like Hough and Fairfax, for example.

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 the district while families have CMSD students in the household). 

However, DigitalC spokesperson Jim Kenny said that as of Friday (Aug. 14), only 252 CMSD student households out of 1,000 were signed up for Internet services through EmpowerCLE. What’s more, DigitalC and CMSD are still working on launching a fundraising campaign to build out the full network, an initiative that will cost at least $36 million.

The midterm 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.”

Angela Siefer, executive director with the National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA), a nonprofit advocating for broadband access based in Columbus, said the main digital barrier that families face in Cleveland is the relative expense of Internet services, rather than a lack of infrastructure built to access those services. “Poverty tracks closely with broadband adoption,” she said.

But why is DigitalC, CMSD’s partner, in a unique position to bridge that divide, in a city that was listed by the NDIA in 2017 as the fifth worst-connected city in the country, with almost 27 percent of all households with no Internet access? For one, Siefer says, DigitalC’s EmpowerCLE initiative is focused solely on providing low-cost Internet access through a not-for-profit model. For CMSD families, it’s free. For non-CMSD families, the cost will be a little less than $20 per month with tax, DigitalC’s Baunach said. The average cost of high-speed Internet is about $60 a month.

The other thing that DigitalC has going for it is access to fiber that’s already in the ground, Siefer said, through a previous partnership with fiber company Everstream. That fiber is newer than much of the fiber that runs underneath Cleveland’s streets, which is at least 25 or more years old and will eventually need to be replaced. Typically, it’s very expensive and intrusive to add new fiber, requiring digging up streets, and is typically done by the broadband companies themselves only if they have financial incentive. “There’s lots of places that wish they could have a DigitalC, or be a DigitalC” for that very reason, Siefer said.

Baunach said DigitalC started its EmpowerCLE initiative, to “connect the unconnected,” back in 2016, and completed its first major project in 2018: Hooking up 550 families in three different Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority buildings with Internet services subsidized by CMHA, giving residents access to $10 per-month Internet. DigitalC has spent the time since expanding its mesh fixed-wireless system, which requires affixing signal transmitters to tall buildings in order to send signals to specific neighborhoods.

There are also physical barriers for the technology used by DigitalC, with Cleveland’s tree canopy blocking signals. To solve that problem, the nonprofit is utilizing new technology from the Jerusalem-based company Siklu to build connection points at the street level, but that network is still being built out in neighborhoods across the city.

County has its own short-term fix

While DigitalC is scrambling to expand its network and get families signed up for services, the nonprofit PCs for People, with a branch in Cleveland, is similarly hustling to get devices out to local K-12 families. 

PCs for People is the lead partner in the County’s effort to provide 10,000 laptops and other devices to non-CMSD schools.

Bryan Mauk, executive director for PCs for People, said that it’s a tall order to get that many devices out to students before school starts, especially with plenty of other school systems across the country seeking as many devices as possible. Before the pandemic, the nonprofit would distribute 100-200 computers a month at low cost, $30 for a desktop and $50 for a laptop; when schools pivoted to online-only last spring, PCs for People started pushing out about 1,000 to 2,000 computers a month. Now, it’s an all-out scramble to get as many computers out as possible, Mauk said. The nonprofit is currently accepting donations of old computers and laptops, especially from the business community (call 216/600-0014 or email [email protected]).

Mauk said that while the county’s initiative will cover two of the most immediate needs – providing devices and hotspots – there’s a key third need: ongoing support. DigitalC’s computers have a one-year warranty and the agency offers free digital literacy classes. Ashbury Senior Community Computer Center, Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority and the libraries also have their own digital literacy classes, Mauk added.

Catherine Tkachyk, chief innovation and performance officer for Cuyahoga County, said she knows that the digital divide will persist even despite the current effort.

“These two years give us some runway to try to solve a problem that’s community-wide,” she said. “A long-term, sustainable solution, that’s really what we want to do. The digital divide didn’t show up with the pandemic and it’ll be there after the pandemic if we don’t make an effort as a community to change it.” 

Conor Morris is a corps member with Report for America. You can find him on Twitter at @condormorris, or email him at [email protected] This story is sponsored by the Northeast Ohio Solutions Journalism Collaborative, which is composed of 16-plus Greater Cleveland news outlets including The Land.

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