PHOENIX — Ahead of Arizona's first day of school in an online setting, many districts are working to close the "digital divide," a gap in available internet for students and families.
The digital divide refers to the lack of quality internet needed for schools to fully carry out their online curriculum. Some of the obstacles include families without adequate internet access, no laptop or hotspot hardware, and, in more rural areas, too few cell phone towers.
"We knew that there were problems with connectivity outside of the school itself for quite a while," said Dr. Melissa Sadorf, Superintendent at Stanfield Elementary School in Pinal County. "The issue was there wasn’t connectivity for 85 percent of our students outside of the school."
Stanfield Elementary School District is a school district, serving about 400 students. Despite having enough laptops for students in the school, the hardware is less effective at home. Families in that district live in even more rural areas where cell phone towers are scarce, meaning even having a wireless internet hotspot isn't enough to connect online. Sadorf said students without internet access will most likely be given a take-home packet for work.
In June, the Arizona Department of Education created the Technology Task Force to tackle just that, the digital divide. In April, Governor Doug Ducey and Arizona State Superintendent Kathy Hoffman announced the state had acquired and donated 200 internet hotspots for students around the state.
To combat the digital divide, Buckeye Elementary School District used part of the money received by the CARES act to distribute nearly 1,300 laptops and 200 hotspots to students. However that only amounts to one laptop per household for children without special needs, and the district is working on providing additional laptops to families with more than one student in the home.
"The digital divide can manifest in comfort of use," said Mike Lee, Assistant Superintendent for Buckeye Elementary School District. Lee said the laptop and hotspot hardware is new for many parents and may be difficult to navigate.
In Gila Bend, most student households in the Paloma Elementary School District #94 are without adequate internet, only 43% having internet, meaning a lot of families use internet via mobile data on their phones, and live streaming class curriculums are unavailable because the streaming uses up too much data. Students may also only have access to that type of internet on a parent's phone.
"If the parent was working, then they wouldn’t be able to access the internet until later in the evening," said Kristin Turner, Superintendent of Paloma Elementary School District #94.
"As a school we are doing really well," she said. "We were able to get a microwave tower put in so we have enough internet here at the school for our 1:1 devices. Because of the mobile hotspot issues, we can't do a lot of livestream videos. The teachers can record and the students can access them later."
Online schooling for the 2020-21 school year is set to begin in early August.