Even before the pandemic, more than 25 million Americans lacked access to broadband internet. But even when they can get online, students of color and low-income families were more likely to share a single device. Today, when strong internet connectivity is all but required for learning, such gaps can serve as insurmountable barriers to learning.
The state of Connecticut thinks it may have found a straightforward solution to the problem: Give every student in grades K-12 a laptop and pay for their internet. And for the past few months, the state has quietly been rolling it out. Recently, the state announced that it had achieved near universal access for both device distribution and connectivity—a significant achievement in a state where 40 percent of households in some cities lack home access, according to census data.
“Once COVID broke out, it was very clear how much the achievement gap is exacerbated by inequitable access to good learning at home,” says Nick Simmons, the director of strategic initiatives for Gov. Ned Lamont, a former telecom mogul who founded Campus Televideo, a company that provided cable to college campuses. “The impetus was really to close that achievement gap and that digital divide.”
The program, known as the Everybody Learns Initiative, was funded primarily by about $43 million in CARES Act stimulus funding, diverted both to school districts to pay for devices and to local internet service providers. In March, a local nonprofit, Partnership for Connecticut, spent $24 million to buy laptops. In some areas, local philanthropy groups stepped up to pay for internet connectivity as well.
In all, the state has distributed about 140,000 devices—many of them Chromebooks—and 44,000 home internet connections, negotiating discounts with five ISPs, with most connections costing the state between $10 to $20 a month.
But even that wasn’t enough to completely close the divide, says Doug Casey, the executive director at the Connecticut Commission for Educational Technology, who heads the home broadband part of the program. The state also helped districts purchase nearly 13,000 internet hotspots from the company Kajeet, which plug into laptops and provide on-the-go internet access, specifically for students who may be between housing, live at multiple addresses in a given week or have long commutes between school and home.
“The broadband needs to follow the kid,” Casey says. “We really directed districts to provide those cellular hotspots to kids who had a lot of mobility needs.”
The state, of course, did not work alone. To identify students in need, districts surveyed their communities and asked teachers which of their students lacked computers or stable internet. The state worked with districts to ship out devices and offered vouchers for internet service that districts could distribute directly to students. “From the state side, that promise has been fulfilled,” Simmons says.
Completing the Last Mile
Now the real work begins. Since the home broadband offer requires families to sign up and make appointments, not all vouchers have been redeemed—and many households on the margins or those with undocumented family members may not feel comfortable signing up for a government program. Some may not even know that this offer exists.
“There is this last mile question of, now that family has the voucher or the Kajeet, are they turning them on?” Simmons says. “Our data’s a bit mixed. We don’t track it perfectly.”
Teachers are a natural link between families and districts, but even there the state’s effort surfaced some illuminating insights. “We would get districts saying, here are my 50 addresses” without internet, Casey says. “And then 20 of them would come back from the carrier saying they’re already customers. So what appeared to be a kid who didn’t have internet access was actually a kid who’s not engaged in remote learning.”
To improve communication, districts have mobilized social services teams that contact and even visit with families directly. The state, for its part, has leaned on community organizations, including the Boys & Girls Clubs, libraries and local municipalities.
In Norwalk, Conn., a city of about 88,000, a survey earlier this year revealed between 7 and 8 percent of families did not have home internet. The city’s library already had a program—now operating remotely—to teach technology skills to adults, such as how to complete job applications online and use the school district’s learning management system. Helping families connect at home is a new focus area.
“We did find that people just didn’t have access,” says Sherelle Harris, the interim director of the Norwalk Public Library System. “We have people standing outside of our libraries to use our Wi-Fi, which goes through the walls to the parking lot.”
With support from local nonprofits, including Dalio Education, the city created the Family Navigators program, which helps families access social services and is working to connect 1,000 local families to the internet as part of the broader statewide initiative. (The foundations, not the state, actually provided the money for the connections in this case.) Schools might refer a family to the program, and a local social worker, called a family navigator, will follow up to offer assistance.
But Lamond Daniels, the chief of community services for the city of Norwalk, who runs the program, said that during a pandemic technology is only one focus, and not always the most important.
“If we look at Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, we know in order to get to the technology piece, we're going to have to address families’ basic needs,” Daniels says. “We have families who are struggling to find food, and so to try to say, ‘Get that student online, make sure you’re online on time,’ that’s not a priority.”
For now, the state is focused on tying up loose ends and completing last mile connections to families most in need. It’s also looking at how to fund the program indefinitely—still a work in progress. “It’s not enough with just this one investment,” says Simmons. “Maintenance is important. There is a life cycle on these devices. The governor’s priority is to make sure that this isn’t just closing the achievement gap for this pandemic, but permanently.”