Addressing the Digital Divide: A Roundtable Discussion
Hartford Public Library, with its free access to computers and internet, was a fitting setting for a roundtable discussion about broadband availability and education in the age of distance learning.
On Tuesday, July 14, Superintendent Torres-Rodriguez joined Senator Richard Blumenthal, Mayor Luke Bronin, community partners at Blue Hills Civic Association, HPS staff and parents to discuss what Blumenthal called the “Homework Gap.” The focus was on the digital divide, or the lack of access to reliable internet connections and technology during school closures.
Calling it a “civil rights issue,” Senator Blumenthal referred to broadband connectivity as “one of the most important issues of our time.” He detailed the legislation he has sponsored to provide subsidies to students and families, and to increase internet access in response to COVID-19. But he acknowledged that the “digital divide is increasingly a racial divide.”
Mayor Bronin agreed, noting the profound disparities in internet access for families in cities like Hartford. Bronin commended the Superintendent and the district for mobilizing quickly to distribute laptops to students and families who did not have them at home. But, he said, some 23% of students statewide don’t have access to quality internet services, and those students are concentrated in urban centers. He’s working with funders to address this aspect of access.
In her remarks, Superintendent Torres-Rodriguez emphasized the district’s commitment to equity. The roundtable, she said, would help address the “how” of ensuring equity to HPS students. After HPS distributed 11,000 devices to students – reaching 60% of our student population – inequities remained. Addressing those gaps, particularly for students with high needs, “is a moral and ethical imperative that we have,” she said.
Representatives from Blue Hills discussed the efforts they made to support families with distance learning, including providing access to their facilities. Executive Director Vicki Gallon-Clark stated that she was grateful the pandemic and closure of schools had revealed underlying challenges for families that needed to be addressed. Beyond connectivity, Blue Hills Program Manager Gabriel Boyd said that families needed help understanding the nuances of
using Google Classroom. “Human connectivity” is also essential, he noted.
Digging Deeper into the Digital Divide
Representing school support staff who work directly with families, Viviana Alvarado (pictured at top of page) spoke as a Family and Community Support Service Provider (FCSSP). She explained how she had internet issues as a parent herself with children engaged in distance learning. To support HPS families, she made phone calls and home visits. In addition to families who had limited internet access, she said English language learners also struggled with simply understanding what their teachers expected of them.
Two HPS parents participated in the panel. Daphne Romero, a parent of a student at Milner, said she had a good experience with distance learning overall and believed that it should continue to be an option for students going forward. That will require reliable internet access. Milner parent Raquel Cartagena relayed a different experience. She said that while the pandemic has caused illness and suffering, there was a silver lining: “It makes us dig deep and have difficult conversations.”
After schools closed, her children’s access to distance learning was disrupted by the closure of the property where her family lived. They moved to a hotel temporarily, where internet access was a challenge. After moving again and struggling to access a reliable internet connection for her children, she was told she needed to “upgrade” her internet service – another unexpected hardship. Cartagena underscored the need for accountability for internet service providers.
Searching for Solutions
With the reopening of schools and possible return to distance learning just weeks away, the roundtable discussion turned to solutions. The Superintendent noted that while 96% of HPS families had devices by the end of the Spring term, the question remained whether they had reliable internet access. She called for data systems to gather information about what parents have and don’t have in terms of technology.
Gallon-Clark of Blue Hills called for comprehensive strategies to make our communities whole in light of the pandemic, as well as a plan to invest in internet equity. Boyd also recommended tapping the experience and wisdom of parents to uncover solutions.
Senator Blumenthal returned to the need to talk about “justice” not just in policing, but also in education. He promised to use the wisdom gleaned from the roundtable to continue his work on the state and federal level to promote broadband legislation.
IN THE NEWS
NBC Connecticut: Parents and Teachers Discuss Digital Divide Hurting Students During Remote Learning
You may watch the entire panel discussion in the videos below: