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Nonprofits are bridging gaps in online education.

Erma Terry has a very strict Wi-Fi schedule for her grandchildren’s schooling. 

Terry, who lives in Kansas City, Missouri, has no Wi-Fi of her own. The six students in her home share one hotspot given to her by one of their schools — hotspots are small, physical devices that provide a connection to Wi-Fi in the same way a modem and router might in a home, but there must be data service to that hotspot first. 

But it isn’t effective because of the inconsistent connection and the lack of bandwidth, Terry said.

“It’s a struggle. It’s slow. And it’s frustrating,” she said. 

Terry experiences what’s often referred to as the “digital divide”  — the gap between those who have reliable internet access and devices and those who do not. As students begin the new school year with varying degrees of remote or online learning, the digital divide has become a bigger issue for Kansas City families during the pandemic.

Almost 16% of Jackson County households in 2017 didn’t have an internet connection at home, according to the Federal Communications Commission. In areas east of Troost, home to mostly Black Kansas Citians, to the Truman Sports Complex, 32% of homes lack internet access, and 26% are without a computer, according to a report by mySidewalk. 

A report commissioned by LeanLab, a nonprofit that works to connect different educational resources to schools, found that roughly 10% of charter school students surveyed in the Kansas City Public Schools boundaries lacked internet access. For public school students in the metro area, the number was significantly higher at 24%. 

Terry‘s grandchildren in grades eight, six and five attend charter schools and share the hotspot until 3:30 p.m., when school lets out, and then work on homework. That’s when the kindergartener and second grader start school, and use the hotspot until midnight. Her 17-year-old grandson also lives in the household and is currently earning his GED. 

Although they were given a hotspot from one school, it’s far from a permanent solution, Terry said.

“What would really help me is true internet,” she said about having an ethernet cable with a router and modem, “with real bandwidth for the kids.”

The Wi-Fi password is: Digital Divide

Tony Miller, the 3rd District at-large county legislator for Jackson County, Missouri, said the digital divide is an issue for both rural and urban communities. 

“Folks who are way out east in Jackson County, in rural areas, they may have different beliefs, or different realities, but being able to (work online) is a common theme,” Miller said. “The reason (families can’t access broadband is) usually socioeconomic.” 

While rural families struggle more with infrastructure issues, there is almost no priority given to increasing internet adoption among those in urban areas who face financial barriers to accessing the internet, according to a report from the National Digital Inclusion Alliance by Research and Policy Director Bill Callahan and Executive Director Angela Siefer. The report shows the deficit discriminates against communities of color most. 

“It’s not that white people in rural areas aren’t important or shouldn’t be a priority,” Callahan said. “It’s that right now, they’re the only priority.” 

One of the major barriers families face when it comes to internet adoption is cost. For example, a hotspot from AT&T with a minimal data plan can cost $60 a month. 

“It’s quite expensive,” Terry said.

Right now, “broadband” means download speeds of 25 megabits per second and upload speeds of 3 Mbps. (At this speed, it would take about 13 seconds for a five-minute video to download.) However, given that there are often multiple users on the internet at the same time, with parents possibly working from home and kids going to school online, BroadbandNow recommends changing the definition to speeds of 100 Mbps for downloading and 25 Mbps for uploading. 

Callahan said the FCC has been encouraging monopolizing behavior for years, which has kept prices for internet high, even while COVID-19 puts the pressure on families to have a reliable connection at home.

“The kids, they just don’t know how to verbalize what they need. What do you say? How do you say it?”

Malika Francis, PCs for People

Schools find work-arounds

Schools in the metro have been able to draw on a combination of local funds and philanthropic aid to bridge the digital divide and purchase devices. At Scuola Vita Nuova Charter School in Pendleton Heights, funding from SchoolSmartKC and the Charter School Growth Fund in the spring allowed the school to loan out 20 hotspots to help around 35 kids without reliable internet access for this fall semester. 

These funds also made it so each student at the charter school received a tablet, which school administrators said helps with connectivity issues. 

Kansas City Public Schools kicked off the school year on Sep. 8 with a combination of distance learning and online school. KCPS recently upgraded their data plan to accommodate growing data needs. Zachary Linhares/The Beacon

Other schools have been able to start similar initiatives that loan devices like tablets, computers or hotspots to families in need. In the spring, Kansas City Public Schools worked with contractors to turn buses into traveling Wi-Fi hotspots. Now, KCPS has more than 13,000 devices, including iPads and Chromebooks, and more than 6,000 hotspots, according to a statement from KCPS. More than 7,000 Chromebooks are supposed to arrive in October. 

In addition, the KCPS School Board recently approved an additional $210,000 in funding to bring a majority of Wi-Fi hotspots onto unlimited plans. Remaining hotspots are at 10 GB of data and have been adequate for distanced and online learning, according to a KCPS spokesperson. KCPS also provides hotspots to each student.

But even then, there are apps that families need to download to complete schoolwork that is only compatible with some devices. For school districts where students need their own laptop or tablet, this can be a source of confusion. Does your student need a tablet or iPad? A Chromebook or a laptop? Is the device compatible with the apps the student needs to download?

KCPS schools provide iPad for every student in Pre-K to third grade and Google Chromebooks for every student in grades five to twelve.

Malika Francis is a customer service lead with PCs for People and a parent of four. Her children attend first, fourth, fifth and sixth grade — all online. 

“The first devices I bought them didn’t work,” she said. “They weren’t compatible. We had to go to the school and pick up some that were compatible.” 

Communicating information like what devices a student needs to have is the biggest problem, Francis said. There’s a lot of guesswork and learning on the fly, which affects student learning. 

Francis said she tries to help her children with their schooling and knows it’s not the same.

“There have been times when I’ve thought, ‘Teachers would know what to say.’ The kids, they just don’t know how to verbalize what they need. What do you say? How do you say it?” Francis said. “They don’t feel supported.” 

‘The math just doesn’t work out’   

Warehouse specialists Jason Shipps and Robeie Tiller take apart desktop computer units at the Connecting for Good warehouse on May 13 in Kansas City. The organization is one of several local nonprofits working to address the digital divide, with a focus on vulnerable communities.
India Garrish/The Beacon

Philanthropy groups have been helping to pay for hotspots and devices for schools, but it’s not a permanent solution, said Rick Usher, assistant city manager for Kansas City who also sits on the board of the Kansas City Coalition for Digital Inclusion. The coalition is wrapping up an open-bid session from telecom companies for how much it would cost to supply home Internet services to Kansas City Public Schools’ more than 6,000 hotspots, with a focus on meeting the needs of low-income households.

The proposals would eliminate the need for hotspots and provide Internet speeds that meet the FCC’s Broadband definitions and BroadbandNow’s recommendations of 100 Mbps for downloading and 25 Mbps for uploading.

Conversations with those responsible for spending at the county level haven’t been productive, Usher said. 

“The attitude has been, ‘We’re going to do those things ourselves…’” Usher said. “Well, then do that.”

A spokesperson for the mayor’s office said the city is working on obtaining nearly $40 million in funding from Jackson County. However, in an email to The Beacon, the Jackson County executive’s office said the Legislature is ultimately responsible for funding recipients.

Nearly $19 million has been spent so far on Kansas City’s COVID-19 response with Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act funding, with $80,000 allocated to digital infrastructure. 

In the meantime, the gap has largely been filled by nonprofit and advocacy organizations like LeanLab. The organization tapped sources for giving earlier this year and helped fund the purchase of 869 hotspots and 1,528 devices.

SchoolSmartKC, a close partner of LeanLab and a philanthropy group focused on supporting Kansas City-area students, quickly funded $1.1 million toward devices and hotspots in the spring. Right now, it’s working on ensuring that area students not only have the devices and Wi-Fi needed, but that teachers are supported as well. 

Awais Sufi, president and CEO, said SchoolSmartKC isn’t feeling any more pressure than usual, despite the confusion around government support. 

“Our schools are always under-resourced, this is just the next iteration of that from my perspective. … But any long-term solution needs to be addressed with public financing,” he said. “The schools and a supportive community just can’t do it by ourselves — the math just doesn’t work out.”

Miller, the 3rd-district at-large legislator, worries that stopgaps like hotspots are being misconstrued as permanent solutions. 

“I think there’s equity implications and further tearing at the social fabric, and the people on the margins are going to suffer the most,” he said.

Currently, the Jackson County Legislature is considering an ordinance that would provide $50,000 of CARES Act funding to the Mid-Continent Public Library to leverage for a larger grant of $120,000 to buy hotspots for higher education. The Jackson County Legislature voted on the ordinance Sept. 21 to be held back another week before being sent to the Mayor’s office for approval. 

Meanwhile, Terry is trying to work something out with one of her grandchildren’s schools for a second hotspot. While it might help the connection issues, it won’t solve the broader problem of how tough it is to teach kids in a pandemic. 

“It’s so frustrating for parents and kids,” Terry said.


Resources

  • PCs for People is a nonprofit that can provide refurbished devices and mobile internet for those eligible. 
  • Check to see if you qualify for Google Fiber internet at $15 a month. 
  • AT&T and Spectrum are offering free internet for a limited time to households with students. 

Marlee Baldridge is a freelance reporter for The Beacon. Follow her on Twitter at @MarleeWith2Es.

Marlee Baldridge

Marlee Baldridge is a freelance reporter for The Beacon. Follow her on Twitter at @MarleeWith2Es.