Schools, nonprofits try to equip students with digital tools as pandemic pushes learning online

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. — If there’s one thing the COVID-19 pandemic has seemed to magnify, it’s the digital divide in schools. 

Now educators and non-profits are doing what they can to make sure families are prepared.

In a recent poll conducted by Shelby County Schools, 69% of parents polled said they support online learning. 

But in Tennessee’s largest school district with 113,000 students including charter schools, about 50% of those students are economically disadvantaged. A University of Memphis study puts the child poverty rate in the city at about 45%. 

Seeing those stats begs the question of access for many students. With online learning, the need for reliable internet and computer devices is crucial. 

That’s why, in a historic vote, the Shelby County Schools board voted to put $37 million of Cares Act funding toward supplying every student with a computer

“This is a big deal for us, to be able to provide the access to all students,” said Jerica Phillips, chief communications officer for Shelby County Schools.

For some, it’s not just computers they’re providing.

About 25% of families said they do not have access to internet, so the district is also providing the mobile hot spots, Phillips said.

The public charter school system is also taking into consideration possible bandwidth issues, said Dr. Nickalous Manning, executive director for Journey Community Schools, formerly known as Aspire. 

“There will be synchronous and asynchronous learning. So there will be learning live, but there will also be recorded options,” he said.

That means if bandwidth presents a challenge students can still have access to learning.

Manning said the digital divide among students illustrates the difference between haves and have-nots.

“We’re seeing it across our world, really,” he said.

Just outside of Memphis, in the suburb of Lakeland, a much smaller district serving K-8, they too are wrestling with how to host a safe school year. 

At least some of the students will probably take part in remote learning. 

“Fortunately, we’re in a position where we’ve been working toward that capability for a while,” said Superintendent Ted Horrell.

Every student in the district will have a Chromebook and a remote hotspot to work with the device. 

“When COVID-19 hit, one of the first things we did was order enough Chromebooks for our elementary school,” Horrell said.

Meanwhile, Agape, a nonprofit that supports families in the Bluff City — particularly in Hickory Hill, Whitehaven and Frayser — is in the process getting 450 to 500 computers with internet to give to families to keep as their own.

“While the coronavirus is forcing educators to rethink how they teach, it’s also highlighting the greater needs of some families and the need for outside help,” said Lorie Humber with Agape. “More than a third of our families have absolutely no resource to anything outside of a flip phone.”

Help like this, educators say, is critical to bridging a digital gap.

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