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Thousands Of Charlotte-Area Students Still Lack Ability To Connect To Remote Lessons

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools
A CMS employee distributes technology for remote learning last spring.

As the first week of school in North Carolina ends, thousands of students in the Charlotte area still lack devices and internet connections needed for remote learning.

For instance, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools leaders said Friday afternoon they've distributed laptops and iPads to about 117,000 students, or 80% of the district's enrollment. But that means more than 29,000 students may not have devices, unless they're using their own.

And CMS launched a $4 million campaign to provide hotspots and WiFi service for about 16,000 students who don't have a reliable connection. The district will contribute $1 million in state COVID relief money to buy the hotspots, but Chief Technology Officer Derek Root said that money can't be used to pay for service.

"As anybody who owns a cell phone knows, the expense in owning the phone is the service, not actually buying the phone," he said.

Virtually all of the state's 1.5 million public school students need online connections to start the year. The majority of them are enrolled in districts like CMS and Cabarrus County that opened remotely because of the coronavirus pandemic. But even those bringing students back in person are using staggered schedules to allow for safe distancing, which means students rely on the internet when they're not in classrooms.

Iredell-Statesville Has Order In

For instance, K-8 students in Iredell-Statesville Schools spend two days a week in school and three learning from home, while high schools are all remote. Spokeswoman Boen Nutting says the district would need more than 3,100 new tablets and laptops to provide one for every student in the 20,000-student district.

For now, she said, ISS is asking parents to use their own devices if they have them, and siblings to double up if one of them has a school device. She said 500 students have requested devices, and the district has 900 ordered. But delivery will take about two weeks.

Nutting said the access question is complex. In northern parts of Iredell County, she says, there's simply no internet access. Elsewhere "you have another family who lives with internet access but they only have one laptop and three children under the age of 12 who all need to use that laptop."

Making The Connection

As schools opened this week, Gov. Roy Cooper announced a $12 million grant to bring high-speed internet to rural counties that need it for online learning.

In the Charlotte region, districts and community partners are patching together solutions. Iredell-Statesville, Cabarrus County and Union County all plan to put WiFi hubs on school buses, which will then go to designated locations in areas without good service.

Gaston County has put WiFi access points on the outside of high schools so students who lack a connection can sit outside the school to work. The district is now wiring elementary and middle schools to provide that option in more neighborhoods.

Root said Friday that CMS will pilot a similar effort at five schools and equip two buses for mobile connections. He said locations will be announced next week.

"We'll see how that pilot goes and if things are working well and trending well, we can expand upon that work," he said.

CMS Connect For Tech Drive

But the push in CMS is raising $3 million for the individual WiFi plans. The CMS Foundation is running the Connect for Tech campaign.

Executive Director Sonja Gantt said Friday that $200 will cover a 12-month WiFi plan for a student -- "and I challenge anybody to be able to go out and get that deal on their own." She said donors have already kicked in about $185,000.

PTAs have been among the early fundraisers, Gantt said, and they're being asked to contribute to the central effort rather than supporting students at a single school.

In the past week, CMS estimates of the need for hotspots has grown steadily. Root said CMS didn't have a way to track the need for all students until they returned and teachers could survey them. He said he thinks 16,000 will be a fairly stable estimate of the need.

Loss And Damage

One other challenge of sending thousands of laptops and tablets home with students is they don't all come back in working order.

Nutting says 147 ISS devices that went out last spring need repairs and 85 haven't come back at all. She said the district hasn't been able to track down the students who graduated or left the district without returning their laptops.

"Now we are working with local law enforcement to figure out what kind of stance we can take with that," she said. "I mean, these are essentially $1,000 computers and they belong to us."

But the laptops have no resale value, she says, because the district can shut them down. "Those 85 computers literally are hunks of metal," she said. "They won’t do anything."

Root said he doesn't have a tally of how many CMS devices are missing or damaged. He said 25% to 30% of graduating seniors returned theirs in the spring, and the district is now starting to follow up with the others.

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Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.