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"There's a complete disconnect": Educators race to address digital divide in Florida

Florida's education digital divide
Florida educators find creative solutions to tackle digital divide 01:11

CBS News is chronicling what has changed in the lives of residents of some of the biggest battleground states in 2020 amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Whitney Johnson, 31, was rounding out her seventh year as a teacher at a middle school in Coral Springs, Florida, when the coronavirus pandemic hit. Johnson said the quick transition to digital learning posed challenges for families who didn't own personal computers, didn't own enough devices, or had devices that weren't equipped with the software needed to tune in to classes online.

"When they can't connect because they lack the technology, it instantly means they're not learning," said Johnson. "If I'm teaching a class and it's via Zoom, they're missing that instruction. If they have questions that they need to ask me but they don't have technology, they can't ask me those questions…there's a complete disconnect."

School districts across the country struggled in the spring to adjust to remote learning. With school set to restart in the coming weeks, education leaders and local stakeholders have had to assess the internet and technological gaps facing students who can't afford technology or live outside of the range of internet connectivity.

  South City Foundation partners with Leon County Schools to ensure that the south side of town, a particularly vulnerable community, has the educational information and resources needed. In the spring the organization gave out laptops to a few graduating seniors. Courtesy South City Foundation. Courtesy South City Foundation

Johnson is an education leadership doctoral candidate. She highlighted to CBS News that lack of physical and technological connection with teachers and peers can be detrimental to a student's overall well-being, especially students who are already struggling with a number of other stresses.

"We became more concerned about not hearing from those kids because we didn't know what was going on," said Johnson. "Is it that you don't have technology? Is it that you just ditched school and you're just over it?…You talk to me about what is going on at home. Has that escalated? It got to the point where school virtually became 'I just need to see so-and-so.'"

In the fall, Johnson will be teaching math at an elementary school in Broward County. CBS News Miami reports that Broward County Superintendent Robert Runcie has said the county plans to begin the school year completely online in three weeks.

Nearly seven hours away in Tallahassee, Leon County Schools Superintendent Rocky Hannah said his district saw firsthand the digital divide.

"We're a school system that's built on brick and mortar, face-to-face instruction and for us to turn on a dime and to shift into this digital distance learning mode presented quite the challenge," said Hannah. "There was a digital divide…with students who did not have devices and with students who did not have connectivity to the internet because a device is no good for us if it isn't connected and can't log into our network."

Through partnerships with internet service providers, Hannah's team helped negotiate internet package deals for 300 families. In addition, 14 school buses outfitted with smart technology and WiFi, were dispersed to rural and low-income communities, where large clusters of students didn't have internet access points near their homes. With more than 33,000 students in the district, Hannah said it was difficult to identify how many needed help accessing internet or technology. As a result, some families were left to travel 15 minutes to the nearest WiFi bus.

  South City Foundation partners with Leon County Schools to ensure that the south side of town, a particularly vulnerable community, has the educational information and resources needed. In the spring the organization gave out laptops to a few graduating seniors.  Courtesy South City Foundation

The county is working with local groups like the South City Foundation to help students who live in vulnerable communities and were already behind in school. The group's executive director Courtney Atkins told CBS News that when COVID-19 hit, some of the students they serve didn't have devices, technical assistance, or even transportation to pick up packets of information.

In an internal poll conducted by the county over the summer, 1,000 families said they did not have reliable internet access in their homes. The survey also gauged whether students felt comfortable returning to school. The majority said they want to return to in-person instruction but roughly one-third preferred remote learning at least through the fall. Hannah said at least 50% of the students enrolled in Title I schools in the district, are particularly hesitant to return.

"We know this virus has had an adverse impact on the African-American community. We know we have multiple generations living in some of those houses and they're just not in a good place," said Hannah. "They do not feel safe. And so I'm really concerned about those students falling even further behind."

Hannah said the county has made an $11 million investment to purchase 32,500 laptops that are expected to arrive days before the school year is set to begin in an effort to equip every Leon County student with technology.

"We have to get creative to re-engage academically and provide some type of rigorous academic program that can be distributed no matter if they're in our classrooms or at home."

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