For nearly 150 years in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Grand Rapids Public Schools (GRPS) has served thousands of students, including former President Gerald Ford. Over that time, the district has changed and evolved to meet the demands of the student body. Sometimes that has meant building new additions or new schools, but during this pandemic, it means building an entire new world for students online.
“We are definitely building the plane as we’re flying it,” said GRPS spokesperson John Helmholdt. “We've never implemented a remote distance learning plan of any scale, let alone for every student in the entire district and so, so massive undertaking.”
Creating the distance learning plan is particularly challenging for GRPS, as it is a large urban school district where about 85 percent of the students live in or near poverty.
Helmholdt said the district did a survey that revealed about 30 percent of the 16,000 students do not have access to technology or reliable internet. He said the survey revealed some teachers also didn’t have access to high-speed or reliable internet at their homes.
Helmholdt said that meant GRPS had to get creative when schools closed in Michigan on March 12.
The district is lending out hundreds of Chromebooks, iPads and other equipment, including about 100 hotspots, to students across the district. Helmholdt said GRPS asked families who have equipment of their own to use that as the district has a limited number of devices that is has to ration out based on the number of students in each family.
Grand Rapids isn’t the only urban area and district in the United States trying to be creative when it comes to digital access.
Helmholdt said the pandemic has the potential to widen the gap between those with resources and those without.
“That's exactly what's going to happen. You're seeing it happen already,” he explained. “There are some districts, particularly our friends in the private school sector, where the week after the mandated school closure they were up running online, and they were doing instruction, nearly throughout the entire day. And so, you've already started to see the gap widen between the haves and the have nots.”
According to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), more than 21 million Americans don’t have access to a broadband internet connection. In addition to that, a study by Microsoft estimates 157 million Americans aren’t using the internet at broadband speeds.
“Basically, even people and rich people in urban areas are paying far too much for their access, and then, poor people can't afford it at all. Those are often people with color, the urban areas and in rural areas. It's either not available or only available for a very high price,” said Harvard Law School professor Susan Crawford.
Crawford was a special assistant to President Barack Obama for Science, Technology and Innovation Policy. She now studies technology and public policy and how they affect our lives.
“What we're seeing right now in the pandemic is a stark difference in opinion as to reality in the United States,” said Crawford.
The FCC said in an email to Scripps National News that the agency is doing a lot to close the digital divide, pointing us to things like the Keep Americans Connected pledge, which asks companies to vow to do things like not terminate service, waive late fees and open WiFi hotspots.
When asked if the government is doing enough to close the digital divide, especially in this time of pandemic, Crawford said, “absolutely not.”
She went on to say, “asking internet providers to charge less for a while. You're asking for the charity of the [internet service providers] that's not a long-term sustainable plan.”
Crawford said the government should launch a massive development program to ensure everyone has reliable, cheap access to the internet – making it a utility like electricity.
“It is the government’s job--just as it is to provide for the national defense--to make sure we have national highways, that we have a natural public safety infrastructure to ensure that we have national fiber infrastructure available for access, by private providers to sell services to us,” said Crawford.
She said COVID-19 has just made the need clearer.
“I actually think that that's where the pandemic has been useful. I don't think you can seriously say any longer that world class access to the Internet is not essential,” said Crawford.