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Latino Leaders help Cleveland schools overcome ‘Digital Divide’

By La Prensa Staff


Latino leaders are among those working to help families in the Cleveland Municipal School District (CMSD) to overcome the ‘digital divide’ with students subjected to remote learning during the coronavirus pandemic. But problems persist in delivering Internet access.


When COVID-19 first forced schools to shut down last March, a CMSD survey of parents showed two-thirds of students didn’t have access to a remote device and four in ten families didn’t have Internet access at home. That sent school district officials into scramble mode even as late as August, when CMSD announced classes would be held online for the first semester.

José Feliciano, Sr.


As a short-term solution, CMSD dropped a whopping total of $14 million to purchase or order 27,000 laptops and tablets, about 13,500 WIFI hotspots, and a year’s worth of data. But getting all that access and equipment to homes within the 40,000 student district has proven quite tricky.


Latino students now make up an estimated 15 to 20 percent of the Cleveland schools’ population. The 2020 census will provide better figures in the coming months and years.


The Hispanic Roundtable has joined the effort of distributing computers, tablets, and hotspots to families who need them to help their kids learn remotely and connect to CMSD teachers. Retired attorney José Feliciano, Sr. and the Hispanic Roundtable are trying to get the word to Latino families about the available technology. But getting it into their hands is just the first step.


“We’ve got to train, too, because many of the parents just don’t know how to use it,” he said. “Those computers are not only so critical for the kids, but for their parents—because so much of health care, for example, is going virtual. So, getting that computer into the hands of the family is critical for both ends of the ladder—the kids and their parents, particularly the elderly.”


Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the Cleveland metro area has struggled with connecting its citizens to reliable, high speed internet. Although in 2019, Cleveland was ranked 4th worst connected city in the U.S., earlier in 2020 it had dropped to become the worst connected city in the country. This effort should help raise that dubious ranking.


CMSD CEO Eric Gordon has become a strong advocate to have reliable access to high speed Internet seen as a public utility. But even that is a tricky, two-sided coin, according to Feliciano.


“The digital divide issue is complex,” he said. “Just because you have a computer, now you’ve gotten to first base. Then you’ve got to have the broadband, the access to the Internet. Then you’ve got to have training, know how to do it. So, this is not a simple problem. What this pandemic has done is just exacerbated the problem. One positive is there’s more focus on it, more energy can be attended to it.”


Families living in poverty may see such a utility as just another bill they cannot afford—and certainly won’t rank in importance anywhere nearly as high as heat and electric, the basics. For some, Internet access will be temporarily free or subsidized. But eventually, someone must pay to continue that access—because it’s unclear just how long the pandemic will continue, and force remote learning, applying for jobs through the internet, seeing doctors through web portals and other societal adjustments.


“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 over the summer. “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 broadband were treated like a utility, like water or electricity, supported by tax subsidies and protected by further regulations, there wouldn’t be such a problem with a lack of access, Gordon and other advocates argue.


Where Toledo Public Schools and others placed school buses in strategic public parking lots to provide Wi-Fi—33 hot spots, CMSD’s problem is much more extensive and such a short-term strategy proved inadequate.


To build long-term connectivity for Cleveland’s students and families, district leaders developed strong relationships with the nonprofit DigitalC to provide low cost Internet plans to families and provide financial credits and support to fully pay the Digital C Internet bills. The system sets families up with Internet access through an organization that specializes in connectivity, providing culturally competent services, and a strong understanding of family needs. The financial subsidy enables families to pay for the services, and over time, families have shown to remove themselves off the subsidy when they reach greater financial stability.


The relationship with CMSD fits right into the wheelhouse of Digital C, whose mission is “empowering Greater Cleveland to achieve success through technology, innovation, and connected community.” Their Internet access service will cost $10 to $20 per month.


On a wider scale, Cuyahoga County and Cleveland Foundation officials pledged $4 million in partnership with T-Mobile to provide 10,000 computers and 7,500 Wi-Fi hotspots to student families in school districts across Greater Cleveland. Those were made available this fall through distribution events coordinated between the nonprofit PCs for People and school districts.


The Hispanic Roundtable effort is being led by Maggie Rivera-Tuma. The organization plans to stay involved, because bridging the digital divide for Latino families meets its “three-E” mission of education, economic development, and empowerment.


“She is doing a terrific job and providing real thought leadership,” said Feliciano.





Copyright © 1989 to 2020 by [LaPrensa Publications Inc.]. All rights reserved.
Revised: 11/04/20 05:27:30 -0800.




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