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Closing the digital divide among students during the pandemic

As the pandemic widens the digital divide, organizations and leaders are working to make sure students have access to devices and the internet.

TAMPA, Fla. — There’s growing concern that the digital divide and achievement gaps in our schools may be widening as we continue dealing with the coronavirus pandemic. 

Students were forced to switch to distance learning but many didn’t have the tools they needed.

When the pandemic started, Vanessa Fernandez’s five children were all sharing one laptop they got from the school district.

The Hillsborough Education Foundation wanted to help, so they delivered two tablets to help the kids do their school work. The CEO of the foundation, Kim Jowell, says while they were able to help the Fernandez family today, they know many students nationwide and in Florida don’t have the basic tools they need to learn, like internet access. 

The foundation has been donating supplies, devices and internet hot spots to students.

In March, Charter Communications provided free Spectrum internet to families for 60 days to homes with students in Hillsborough but told 10 Tampa Bay in April that those with previous balances would not get that free internet. 

A representative with the school district said that free access is over now and it is not sure if it will partner with Spectrum again.

Jowell sees the digital divide widening.

"COVID has just exposed it much more. We know that disproportionately it’s going to widen that achievement gap," she said.

Some new national studies confirm her concerns.

An Education Trust Poll found nearly 50 percent of low-income families and 42 percent of non-white families don’t have access to the devices they need for distance learning. 

And, a study from Brown University warns educators and policymakers to start preparing for many students who will be substantially behind academically when they return to school.

RELATED: Pinellas school board approves funding for 42,000 new laptops for students

RELATED: A daily routine is the key to distance learning, educator says

Pinellas County educators and leaders are aware of the urgent issue, too. In a school board meeting Tuesday, the board voted to use the funds provided through the CARES Act to buy 42,000 laptops for students in the district. 

The district says its plan is to give them first to all students in grades fourth through ninth by this fall. It plans to have every student have a device by 2023.

Charter Communications says it’s too early to say whether it will be providing that free internet again for the upcoming school year. 

RELATED: Florida sending 32K laptops to students in small and rural school districts

RELATED: Here are the distance learning resources available to Florida students

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