‘Technology is everything’: Closing the student digital divide

Published on November 23, 2020 in ,

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, United Way for Southeastern Michigan has provided grants to fund the purchase of more than 8,000 Chromebooks and laptops for students.

When 17-year-old Kimani Journey found out that his senior year of high school would be completely virtual due to the COVID-19 pandemic, his mind raced with thoughts of missing out on college tours and social events. But most of all, he wondered how he and his 15-year-old sister would get by sharing the family’s old laptop.

Kimani and his sister attend University Prep Science & Math in Detroit – a city where 35 percent of students lack access to the technology they need to learn, according to Education Trust-Midwest. Access to computers and high-speed internet was an issue before the pandemic, but the shift to virtual learning has made it impossible for students to succeed without these and other digital supports.

“We had just moved a month prior, so there was a lot going on,” Kimani said. “We talked about alternating with the laptop and one of us using our phone for class.

“That would’ve meant I couldn’t attend some of my AP classes or my Python coding class.”

student working on laptop

Bridging the gap — together

United Way for Southeastern Michigan works to ensure that all children can thrive in nurturing environments with access to high-quality education. That now includes making sure students like Kimani can learn effectively at home.

“As students turn to virtual learning during this pandemic, access to technology and connectivity is a basic need that all children and families must have to be successful,” said Vanita Sanders, director of education and community initiatives at United Way for Southeastern Michigan.

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, United Way for Southeastern Michigan has provided grants to 74 public and charter schools, community-based organizations and local programs in the region, funding the purchase of more than 8,000 Chromebooks and laptops for students.

In addition to funding from United Way’s budget, donors have come together to help bridge the gap. The recent Run United Virtual Marathon, supported in large part by FCA, raised nearly $200,000, which will help meet the technology needs of more than 900 Detroit students.

Still, it’s estimated that thousands more students are in need.

That’s why, between Nov. 24 and Giving Tuesday on Dec. 1, Masco has pledged to match all donations up to a total of $25,000 to help support this cause. You can join the effort and make a donation today on our #GivingTuesday webpage.

Preparing for the future

With grant funding from United Way, University Prep Schools (U Prep), which includes three K-12 districts and 10 schools serving 4,900 students, was able to purchase Chromebooks for nearly 50 percent of its scholars.

U Prep CEO Danielle Jackson said the laptops are a critical component of the virtual learning infrastructure put in place to keep students and the community safe while working to slow the spread of COVID-19.

“We think a lot about technology as another language,” Danielle said. “Without students being able to learn and leverage that language, they lose out on opportunities to further their education, secure jobs, participate in entrepreneurship opportunities, and more.”

Where some see difficulty, Danielle sees opportunity. She and the team at U Prep are pressing past the inherent stress of pandemic learning and using this time to help students better prepare for the future.

“This is an early entre for students learning to manage their own time. They can learn a lot about themselves — what their Achilles might be — whether it’s being distracted or procrastinating – and take steps to address it before college.”

Breaking barriers

Covenant House Academy, which provides at-risk youth with opportunities to earn a high school diploma, also received grant funding from United Way to help purchase 550 Chromebooks.

The new devices replaced tablets to make online learning more accessible and intuitive for students.

Malika Harris, who is in her third year at Covenant House, said she is able to work more efficiently with the Chromebook.

“I couldn’t do all my work with the tablet,” she said. “It made things more confusing and irritating, but it’s much better now.”

Malika also uses the device for research outside of school and submitting applications in hopes of landing a job.

Covenant House Superintendent Terrence George said closing the digital divide and ensuring students have equal access to technology is one of the most important issues our community faces.

“We have to understand that connected devices are the pathway to an awful lot of places,” he said. “Without access, students have a very limited view of the world. It’s the way to apply for jobs, to find resources or to look for a new home if a family gets evicted.

“It’s everything.”

Terrence also stressed the importance of understanding the full view of the barriers children and students in Metro Detroit face.

“There’s the digital divide but then there’s also the general life divide that we have to overcome.”

Exploring opportunities

While U Prep is examining a path back to in-person learning, Danielle says things will never go back to exactly the way they were. Technology will remain an important learning component – and that’s something students like Kimani and Malika are grateful for.

“We’re thankful for everything that has been done for us,” Kimani said. “We’re glad to be able to find someone to help us during this time instead of just giving up.”

After a recent slate of virtual college tours, Kimani is feeling optimistic about his future opportunities and looking to explore a career in science or biology.

Danielle added that the future will be dependent on students learning to navigate these virtual spaces.

“What kids are experiencing now gives them a look at what college life is like,” she said. “When you think about it, after lecture, what takes place is asynchronous learning. Students need educators to prepare them for that.”

To learn more about the steps we’re taking to create environments where children can thrive, click here.