As classrooms go online, there’s more to the digital divide than who gets a hot spot

Districts have raced to get digital devices into the hands of their students, but it’s not enough to close the gaps in a virtual classroom

A teenager sitting in front of a computer monitor and keyboard.
Project Nandi donates equipment to help students and families with limited to no access to online learning.
Courtesy of Project Nandi

After the pandemic shuttered schools and thrust classrooms into the virtual space, Ini Augustine set out on a mission to get students connected. But the network engineer quickly learned that closing the digital divide wasn’t going to be as simple as buying cell phones, laptops or mobile hot spots.

Augustine’s volunteer work led her to mothers who’ve experienced domestic violence and homelessness. Their children needed not just electronic devices, but physical desks, school supplies, food, and even hotel rooms because they had no place to stay.

“You’re not going to set a child up for internet for school in a home that has no electricity,” she said.

A woman sits at a table in front of blue wallpaper.
Ini Augustine is a Minneapolis network engineer and business owner who has been helping students and families with limited to no access to online learning.
Courtesy of Project Nandi

It’s why Augustine created Project Nandi, an effort to close the digital divide between families who have what they need for distance learning and those who don’t. 

Now that more Minnesota school districts are opting for either full-time remote instruction or a hybrid model that requires students to log on from home for part of the week, many advocates, families and school officials are increasingly worried about the lack of equity in the virtual classroom this fall. 

About three weeks into the school year for many districts, some students in Minnesota and across the country are still struggling to access online school due to broadband issues, lack of devices, or other socioeconomic concerns. 

Marva Lynn Shellenberger of St. Paul is a single mother to a high school senior who qualifies for Comcast’s Internet Essentials program, which offers high-speed internet to families eligible for public assistance at a reduced rate. She and her son not only use the internet for school, but for streaming news and entertainment during the pandemic. 

Shellenberger’s home is where many of her son’s friends hang out, and she tries to push them to do their schoolwork while they’re there. 

“It’s usually the second or the third week of the month that I get a text message that says we’ve used 90 percent of our available data and then we’ll be charged more if we go over it,” she said. “It’s a headache trying to monitor when there [are] kids coming in your house and the first thing the kids do — because maybe they don’t have internet on their phones — is they log into yours.”

Shellenberger has gotten into the habit of making sure streaming and gaming devices are completely off before leaving a room even for just a few minutes. But she’s not sure if she’ll eventually be charged more than the $10 monthly bill that she currently budgets for.

“Right now with the way things are, we know people need to save money wherever they can,” she said.

National Center for Education Statistics data show that many lower-income families don’t own computers or tablets. The gap between white children and children of color who have access to devices is also apparent. Nationwide, the percentage of Black children living in a household without a computer or tablet was 18 percent in 2017, compared with 6 percent of white children.

In Minnesota, according to the three-year-old data, 14 percent of households did not have internet access. 

When the pandemic began and forced schools to shut their doors in the spring, many schools equipped students with laptops, iPads and hot spots for Wi-Fi.

Race to distribute devices

Minneapolis Public Schools distributed about 18,000 devices and 3,000 hot spots in the spring. District officials say they gave out 9,000 additional devices and 2,900 additional hot spots at the start of this school year. 

“Overall, we’ve been hearing that everyone sees this fall as a marked improvement from distance learning this spring,” said district spokesperson Dirk Tedmon. “There are obviously still challenges, but more students are connected, more classes are happening with live instruction, and more support is available to support students and families in their learning.”

But attendance records provided by the district show that about 83 percent of students in all grades attended school on the first day of school compared with 93 percent last year.

In St. Paul, district officials say they’re still gathering engagement data to find out what percentage of students have logged into their classrooms. 

Advocates say there is still a need that is evident by the number of families waiting to receive equipment not only in urban districts but in suburban and rural areas as well. In greater Minnesota, nearly a quarter of households do not have any type of internet in their home, compared to 13 percent in the Twin Cities metro area, according to Minnesota Compass.

Minnesota Computers for Schools, a nonprofit that donates refurbished computers to students all across the state, has 225 students on a waiting list. Executive Director Tamara Gillard said since many employees are working remotely, companies are donating at a much slower rate than they used to because they’re equipping their own employees with older computers they would’ve typically given away.

“It’s really important for people to realize what has happened through this pandemic,” she said. “[Being online] is just something that students and families absolutely have to have to be able to succeed in life.”

A pink desk chair and laptop sits at a dining room table.
Project Nandi donates equipment that includes comfortable chairs and laptop covers in the child's favorite color.
Courtesy of Project Nandi

For Augustine, Project Nandi was born out of the civil unrest following George Floyd’s killing by Minneapolis police in May. She used her resources as an entrepreneur to order cell phones wholesale and distribute them to Minneapolis families so they could stay safe and connected during the protests.

“When the George Floyd uprisings happened, that was what really lit my head on fire,” she said. “As a mom, that’s what I’m thinking about. All this stuff is happening, how is that going to impact the kids, what trauma are they going to have to heal from.”

Now Augustine is working to raise $300,000 to help kids get laptops, internet and assistive devices, such as headphones for students who are hard of hearing and special chairs for those with attention hyperactivity deficit disorder. She’s been able to help 32 students so far and she has 35 still on the list, but her goal is to reach 400.

“I always think about what the future will look like for these children if they’re not able to get back on track with their education,” she said. “We already know that our society has very little space for people of color that don’t conform to the ideal. 

“We are creating a whole new generation of people who never had the opportunity.”

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