Cleveland-Area Schools Scramble To Bridge Digital Divide As Semester Starts

map showing Cuyahoga County census tracts layered with data from the 2017 American Community Survey on households’ access to broadband
This map shows the various census tracts in the county layered with data from the 2017 American Community Survey on households’ access to broadband. [Cuyahoga County]

By Conor Morris, for the Northeast Ohio Solutions Journalism Collaborative

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

CMSD has its work cut out for it. By some estimates, Cleveland is one of the worst-connected large cities in the country – and school begins as early as next week for some students.

The COVID-19 pandemic in spring revealed a glaring divide: Two-thirds of students at the largest school district in the area 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 conducted by CMSD after schools shut down in Ohio last March and youngsters were forced to take online classes with their teachers.

To combat that, the district has purchased or ordered a total of about 27,000 laptops and tablets and about 13,500 Wi-Fi hotspots – for a school district with an enrollment of about 40,000 students – as many Northeast Ohio schools, including CMSD, chose to return to remote classes for the fall because of the pandemic.

The equipment comes at significant expense. CMSD paid about $11 million for the devices and another $3 million for the hotspots and one year worth of data, using a mix of school funds, federal CARES Act money and grants, according to a CMSD spokesperson.

For some schools, the first day is next week, for others, it’s Sept. 8. But by the time all of the district’s remote-only classes begin this month, CMSD 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 for the fall. Chicago Public Schools, 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 Northeast Ohio, the Cuyahoga County government and the Cleveland Foundation recently announced a $4 million program in partnership with T-Mobile, to provide 10,000 computers and 7,500 Wi-Fi 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 the Greater Cleveland area, through distribution events coordinated between the nonprofit PCs for People and the school districts themselves.

Challenges Facing School Districts

Gordon said it’s important to keep in mind 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 said. “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 CMSD fourth grader. Howard 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 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 him 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.

Previously, her grandson had in-person meetings with a special education instructor a few times a week, which will now need to be done remotely, she said.

“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 his district provided 1,300 cameras to its intervention specialists to allow them to work remotely with children with IEPs, invested in tele-therapy systems and is giving specific training to teachers to further the goal of being able to help students with IEPs remotely. He also said there’s a new help desk accessible over the phone or in-person to help parents with technological problems.

Howard said she was never offered a Wi-Fi hotspot from CMSD, 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 already paying for her own internet access.

“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.

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, paid for by CMSD as long as families have CMSD students in the household.

However, DigitalC has its work cut out for it, as the school year rapidly approaches. DigitalC spokesperson Jim Kenny said that as of 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 mid-term 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.”

Dorothy Baunach, CEO of DigitalC, shows off a receiver device that the Cleveland-based nonprofit uses to provide high-speed internet to residences in neighborhoods throughout the city that typically 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. [Conor Morris / Northeast Ohio Solutions Journalism Collaborative]

Dorothy Baunach, CEO of DigitalC, shows off a receiver device that the Cleveland-based nonprofit uses to provide high-speed internet to residences in neighborhoods throughout the city that typically 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. [Conor Morris / Northeast Ohio Solutions Journalism Collaborative]

Angela Siefer, executive director of 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 important thing 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 expensive and intrusive to add new fiber, which requires digging up streets, and is typically done by the broadband companies themselves. If there’s no financial incentive to build new fiber or fix old fiber, it won’t get done, Siefer said.

“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 and giving residents access to $10-per-month service. 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 dense 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 Cuyahoga County’s effort to provide 10,000 laptops and other devices to non-CMSD schools.

Bryan Mauk, executive director for PCs for People, said 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. Anyone interested can call 216-600-0014 or email cleveland@pcsforpeople.org.

Mauk said while the county’s initiative will cover two of the most immediate needs – providing devices and hotspots – there’s a key third need.

“So, there’s the device and the connection, but then the third part is the ongoing support,” Mauk said. “The other thing that we offer is all of our stuff has got a one-year warranty on it, that’s three free repairs. We also offer digital literacy classes each week here.”

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 the digital divide will persist even despite the current effort.

“These two years give us some runway to try to solve that 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.” 

Chicago Tries Its Own Hand; What Will The Future Hold?

Chicago Public Schools (CPS) is in the midst of a similar push to get students connected to free internet services as fast as possible before school gets under way, in what is likely the largest such effort currently under way in the country.

According to a news release, more than 100,000 of CPS’s 356,000 students don’t have access to high-speed Internet. The “Chicago Connected” program, announced last month, aims to change that.

Phillip DiBartolo, chief information officer for CPS, said the program involves the school district negotiating cheap monthly rates for internet services from traditional broadband providers for student families, while providing wireless hotspots for students in transitory living situations and those that don’t have access to traditional wired services. Those services will be provided free for the next four years.

Hal Woods, with the nonprofit Kids First Chicago, said the program is unique because it has 35 community partners, including Kids First, to help CPS reach families, do digital literacy education for adults in those families, and provide workforce training and other opportunities to those adults.

“This is not just about us providing Internet connectivity. It’s also very much geared to ensure adults in those households are trained on how to use the Internet effectively,” Woods said.

Daniel Anello, CEO of Kids First Chicago, said so far, it’s likely that only a few thousand families have been connected through that effort, but that’s mostly before most community partners have started outreach.

Siefer, with the NDIA  and who is familiar with Chicago’s program, and said one important takeaway from Chicago Connected is the use of trusted community partners – organizations that people already know –  to let people know that free Internet service is available.

“If you’re told that, ‘look, there’s this free internet, it’s for you’… a lot of folks are going to be like, ‘this is a scam,’” Siefer explained.

Jovanti Ramirez, a CMSD student 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. [Conor Morris / Northeast Ohio Solutions Journalism Collaborative]

Jovanti Ramirez, a CMSD student 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. [Conor Morris / Northeast Ohio Solutions Journalism Collaborative]

Back in Cleveland, DigitalC is using former CMSD students to perform some of that outreach work as “brand ambassadors,” Baunach said. They’ll be going door-to-door and trying to engage with CMSD families via social media, as well.

It’s unfortunate that it's taken a pandemic to get people energized around the topic of expanding broadband access, Baunach said, but she’s hopeful for the future.

“Everybody now recognizes this problem; we don’t have to tell people the ‘why’ anymore, we just have to say, ‘we think we know how,’” she said. “And we pretty much believe we’re the ones on the ground and prepared to do this.”

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

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