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