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See the latest news and updates about COVID-19 and its impact on the Charlotte region, the Carolinas and beyond.

Schools Shifting To Online Classes, But Some May Not Have Tools


School closings because of the coronavirus pandemic have educators scrambling to shift to online learning. But here in Mecklenburg County, as many as one in five students may lack the basic tools they need to work at home. Experts say that highlights an underlying crisis: the digital divide.

Most of us take for granted our home computers and high-speed internet access. But in Mecklenburg County, census data and other surveys show that many households lack one or both.

“I do not think we are prepared for this,” said Bruce Clark, executive director of the Digital Charlotte project at Queens University. He says schools and organizations have been working to get computers and network connections to low-income students who need them. But the virus-induced hurry-up schedule makes it clear there's a lot left to do.

“We know that there are still tens of thousands of people, particularly when we think about students in CMS, who lack one of those critical elements needed to participate in a remote learning experience,” Clark said.

Based on census data and local surveys, Clark estimates that as many as 14,000 families in CMS may not have a computer or internet access, just as the school district launches online-only classes. (Not all will be online. Younger kids in CMS will get learning packets at home.)  

Sherrell Dorsey is with the group BLKTECHCLT, which promotes tech careers and startups for African Americans. She's been working with Clark and helping to draw attention to the digital divide. 

“This is going to have a tremendous impact on families," Dorsey said. "So as these kids are making transitions to being at home, and potentially having some of their work, some of their tests, exams what have you, being disseminated online, if you don't have access, how are you gonna complete your lessons, continue to keep up with your studies?”

CMS has acquired thousands of Chromebook computers that potentially could be distributed in the coming days, though Clark notes that they're no help without internet access. Some local internet providers also have offered free or reduced-rate pricing to families, which could help.  

Another group that's helping is the nonprofit E2D, for Eliminate the Digital Divide, which in recent years has handed out thousands of refurbished corporate computers to families in need, and helped get them connected.

“We've all sort of known that lack of digital access is one of the main, remaining social injustices as it relates to upward mobility for Charlotte," said Pat Millen, E2D’s co-founder. "And so if we weren't motivated enough to come up with a complete solution before, we certainly should be now.” 

Millen is optimistic and said increased awareness of the digital divide could be a silver lining to this coronavirus cloud.