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CMS Says It Has Met Goal For Connecting Students To Internet

CMS hotspot distribution
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools
CMS staff prepare mobile WiFI hotspots for distribution to students.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools says all students should now be able to connect to the internet for remote learning. But the path to meeting that goal has been a twisty one.

Last spring, when the coronavirus pandemic slammed students into remote learning, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Foundation bought 6,000 WiFi hotspots to help students connect. By the end of the school year, about 3,000 were left, says Executive Director Sonja Gantt.

So at first it looked like CMS would be in good shape when district leaders decided to open remotely in August. But Gantt says that quickly changed.

"We got to the school year, and very quickly the demand far outpaced the supply that we had on hand of 3,000," she said this week.

Estimating Need

As the year began, CMS officials said they had 16,000 students who lacked the reliable internet connection needed for remote learning. The district set aside $1 million in state COVID-19 relief money to buy hotspots for students. The foundation launched a $3 million Connect For Tech fund-raising campaign. To fill the gap, CMS sent school buses with Wi-Fi access points to seven locations around the county where students were struggling to log on for lessons.

This week, when WFAE asked for an update, CMS said it has meet the need for now — with about 8,200 hotspots.

"We have fulfilled almost all of the requests at the school level, and the ones that are not fulfilled are just waiting to be picked up by schools," said Assistant Superintendent Patrick Smith.

So why the gap?

Gantt says 16,000 was only an estimate. It was based on data on broadband access from the Census Bureau and the Pew Research Center, along with reports from CMS schools.

Smith and Gantt both say schools are likely to keep hearing about students who need better connections. Gantt says a lot of parents told schools they had a good connection, but discovered that using their phones isn’t good enough.

"I think one of the most important messages to get out is that CMS has support available. People need to ask their schools," Gantt said.

Gantt says the foundation and the district will also need to provide support for students who got WiFi contracts last school year that expire starting this month.

How Much Raised?

Gantt said she expects to release a total from the Connect For Tech campaign next week. She said Thursday she's still processing a few pledges, but "I think we could be there. It's been wonderful."

Donors have included PTAs, local artists and businesses that did special events and teachers who printed "Virtually Unstoppable" T-shirts to raise money.

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