Connecticut launches $43.5M initiative to boost access to internet and technology as schools prepare for possibility of continued online learning

As Connecticut school districts prepare for the possibility of reopening this fall with online and hybrid learning programs, Gov. Ned Lamont Tuesday announced a $43.5 million initiative to boost access to internet and technology for students and families in need. “To me this is the Brown v. Board of Education […]

As Connecticut school districts prepare for the possibility of reopening this fall with online and hybrid learning programs, Gov. Ned Lamont Tuesday announced a $43.5 million initiative to boost access to internet and technology for students and families in need.

“To me this is the Brown v. Board of Education of our generation,” Lamont said at a news conference in Waterbury, referencing the landmark case in which the Supreme Court ruled against racial segregation in public schools. “Separate but equal back in the ’50s is the digital divide of the 21st century.”

The state will will draw the money from its portion of the federal CARES Act, the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund and the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund. Twenty-two million will be used to purchase 50,000 laptops, $15 million will be used to improve home internet connectivity for 60,000 students and $4.5 million will go towards 200 public WiFi hot spots across the state. Districts will also have access to a $2 million social-emotional learning program.

Lamont said the Everybody Learns Initiative is not just about “how we prepare for this fall, when a fair number of students don’t feel comfortable coming back into the school. … We’re making one of the biggest commitments in the country to technology for students. … It’s about how we change education going forward.”

Judging by school district surveys, Lamont said about 25% of students will likely remain home upon school reopenings, stressing that they “cannot get left behind.” He added the former Partnership for Connecticut purchased 60,000 laptops for students, the last of which were expected to be delivered by early August, and the state will also work to provide technology assistance to families, as well as develop relationships with “all the major cable providers.”

The initiative will focus on Connecticut’s most in-need families, as well as low-performing districts. Doug Casey, director of Connecticut’s Commission for Education Technology, mentioned a recent state Department of Education survey, which found that 29,000 Connecticut students did not have access to reliable WiFi and 50,000 did not have access to a device for months during the pandemic. Students in urban school districts were five times less likely than their suburban counterparts to have a computer, tablet or phone to do school work on and three times less likely to have the necessary WiFi connection.

“The digital divide in the urban districts like Waterbury, Bridgeport, Hartford, New Haven, is significant, just like the achievement gap is significant,” Waterbury Mayor Neil O’Leary said. “We struggle, day in and day out, to make sure our kids, particularly in urban districts, are getting what they need, so that we can get through this pandemic and move forward.”

O’Leary said in March between 30% and 35% of students expressed a need for technology and connectivity, “a little bit lower than was expected.”

Waterbury Superintendent of Schools Verna Ruffin said around 10% to 15% of students still need connectivity, and about 4,500 need computers. When the district initially requested devices, many families asked for only one, she explained. When multiple students in a household began to rely on distance learning, families realized they needed more devices and faster networks. O’Leary said Waterbury intends to keep school computer labs open this fall during daytime and evening hours for students and parents.

Over the next few days, Casey said the state will be “sending out a contact form to each district leader, asking them to articulate need.”

“We are asking multiple times,” he said. “We’re spending a lot of time, thought and discernment about what that need looks like.”

Ideally, Casey said, the state would like to provide fixed high-speed broadband connections in students’ physical homes. But he said they need to be aware of split custody situations, in which a child may regularly spend time in different towns and homes, as well as magnet or charter school students, who regularly travel for their education.

“We need to have multiple solutions,” he said. “We’re addressing those in the design solution. … We’ve asked [the districts] to really come around as partners in this [and] help us understand what those needs are.”

The state indicated it will move as quickly as possible to implement the initiative, with connectivity being somewhat easier to address because it does not have the same global supply chain issues that exists for laptops, which are in high demand. It expects connectivity to be addressed over the next four to five weeks, and hopes to procure the computers by the early fall.

Amanda Blanco can be reached at ablanco@courant.com.

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©2020 The Hartford Courant (Hartford, Conn.)

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