The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted what urban and rural educators know all too well. There is a significant gap between the “haves” and “have nots” when it comes to Wi-Fi access and laptops for students.

My older daughter is a student at one of the state’s largest colleges who had to move out of her dorm and is now taking classes online. She was provided an iPad from the college, but she has a MacBook Pro of her own. We have 5G internet connectivity in our home, which allows fast download speeds. 

My younger daughter attends a suburban school. The school provides each of the students a Chromebook, which contains all the software and applications needed to maintain work-from-home and online instructional platforms, so she can continue with business as usual. Her teachers have set up office hours daily; they monitor her usage rates, progress, and provide feedback on her work virtually.

I work in a district that is considered urban and is one of the largest in the state. We are in the process of disbursing technology and creating and developing a digital learning plan, and we are working around the clock to provide our students with a cohesive, concrete plan of action to ensure no learning lag. The team is working diligently. In fact, I have seen collaboration in these times that I have never seen in my 28-year career. We are not reinventing the wheel, and we are using resources the district had in place previously, tapping into online resources and companies with support. We’ve implemented professional development virtually, and I am pleased to say we are making progress.

The dilemma is access. Many of the students and families live below the poverty line as defined in Ohio—many have cellphones and mobile devices, but not Chromebooks, desktops, or laptops. The schools provide access to the online learning platforms, and we use many of the same programs the suburban district uses. Unfortunately, the families do not have access to Wi-Fi or the bandwidth or speeds needed for the applications to work effectively once we provide the devices.

Technological Equity

COVID-19 has become a great revealer—exposing what we all knew but failed to speak about publicly. We are the wealthiest of nations yet have forgotten people—the working-class poor, who see the opulence and work hard to achieve for their families, but still can’t meet all their needs. It appears the urban/rural schools are being called on to provide technology, devices, internet access, meals, transportation, and—by the way—ensure that students are learning, with fewer dollars and fewer resources.

In our urban district, once we provided a Chromebook for each child, we still could not overcome internet access challenges. As we supplied more and more hot spots to families, we began to see several of our staff members did not have internet connectivity and needed additional supports.

As a result of the concern with access, our superintendent has worked collectively with the mayor to support each family with 1:1 technology. As a result, we were able to distribute an additional 10,000+ Chromebooks to students and 500 hot spots. The collaborative partnership helped our district provide more devices to students and families to get closer to 1:1 versus one per household, where parents had two or more children. Also, the Board of Education, in collaboration with the superintendent, worked to secure and provide hot spots for families without internet connectivity. We believe in the concept of the school, family, and community working together collectively to ensure equitable outcomes for each student, but this remains difficult as the need is greater than the supply.

Elementary and Secondary Education Act

The achievement gaps we see in America are not by accident, but by design. Low-income, rural-urban, and minority students have made tremendous growth in a school system that was separate and inherently unequal. The separate and unequal was not only racial, it was economic. President Lyndon B. Johnson’s war on poverty created the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 to address poverty gaps in American schools. It was designed to support rural and urban schools with high rates of poverty to supplement (not supplant) educational programs by providing federal Title I funds for high-poverty schools, regardless of location.

These funds are now being used to fund voucher programs, experimental charter, and community schools in Ohio. When students with the least need it the most, we are challenged with a new crisis. Students who have the least need access to hardware, software, Wi-Fi, and bandwidth in order to stay up to date with their suburban colleagues. We must come together as a country to support these students and families. We know almost every process we complete currently requires an email address, uses an online platform, and requires digital connectivity. These are the realities we face in the digital age.

As a country, we have a great deal of history regarding inequality. Despite these inequalities, we are sought out for direction on a global level. We have traditionally found a way to address our problems when it comes to educating our children. They are the future, and we must research and work to address this digital divide. Education is economic development, and when students miss one, two, three, or more days—let alone a few weeks or a month of instructional time—they fall further behind.

The COVID-19 pandemic has produced an opportunity that requires innovative thoughts and open minds to new ideas and new methods. Educators will need collaborative efforts in working with telecommunications companies, internet providers, software developers, government entities, and multiple other groups to solve these new challenges with access.

Sandy D. Womack Jr., EdD, is the area superintendent in region III for the Columbus City Schools in Columbus, OH. He is also a nationally recognized speaker on educational issues and the author of Creating Successful Urban Schools: The Urban Educators Month by Month Guide to School Improvement.