Continued push from State Ed. to bridge digital gap

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A student virtually attends class using a tablet on the first day of the 2020-2021 school year at Brunswick’s Lower School in Greenwich, Conn., on Tuesday. Schools across the country are opening in a variety of ways during the coronavirus pandemic, including all in-person learning, all virtual learning, and a hybrid model mixed virtual and in-person learning. (Tyler Sizemore/Hearst Connecticut Media via AP)

ALBANY, N.Y. (NEWS10)- The COVID-19 pandemic brought to light the lack of internet access across the state and the entire nation. That’s the sentiment shared between many of the panelists that spoke at the New York State Education Department’s (NYSED) summit on digital inequality on March, 8.

Many educators said getting devices into student’s hands is no longer an issue, whereas connectivity still is. Non-profit groups and digital professionals said there is a direct relation of digital inequality to poverty. They also said they are dedicated to working with educators, education professionals, and government officials to find a solution.

The summit focused on the expansion of digital access through increased infrastructure and closing the digital gap throughout the state by eliminating financial barriers for low-income earners. Long-term goals include programs and infrastructure to sustain the needs of internet connectivity to impoverished families and rural communities.

Although all panelists agreed that the issue of internet connectivity needs to be tackled on the federal, state, and local levels, there was a broad discussion of solutions to find the necessary funding that would sustain programs into the future.

Financial assistance that funds antiquated programs like textbooks could be a way for schools to shift funding to furthering digital equity, said East Syracuse Minoa Central School District Superintendent, Dr. Donna DeSiato.

“At some point, someone realized in our country that our children were not going to have meals daily and we set up a structure, the school lunch program that is sustainable. At some point, they realized we would not have the support systems for students who learn differently and the IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) came into being,” Dr. DeSiato said.

“Now it is time for New York to take the lead and to work with our federal government, with students being involved in the solutions. Because, trust me, our high school students have many solutions to this and that is to have (a) sustainable funding for digital equity and broadband connectivity,” she said.

Breakout sessions on how digital equity can be obtained were not streamed to the public but some of the ideas were summed up in the second half of the summit. Breakout groups discussed how the challenges of digital equity extend far beyond securing funding.

A recurring theme was reaching out to local communities directly to find out what kind of support they need whether it’s tech support, connectivity, or access to devices. Other recurring themes included overcoming communication and/or language barriers, building trust among the community, and providing help without judgment.

Breakout sessions included discussions about reaching communities, especially those community members who are impacted by language barriers, building trust, getting internet providers to commit to programs and expanding infrastructure, and whether or not the use of refurbished devices is worthwhile.

Governor Andrew Cuomo spoke to the affordability of internet access during his 2021 State of the State address. He proposed a program that would mandate internet providers to make available internet access for $15 a month for low-income families. To help families that cannot afford the $15 per month, a state fund would be set up.

Discussed in breakout sessions:

  • How to secure funding by creating partnerships with companies and making room in school budgets.
  • Reaching out to communities to determine needs in terms of access, tech support, and education.
  • Encouraging companies to donate used/refurbished technology.
  • Getting students involved.
  • Possible hiring and training of community members to provide tech support.

Despite the push to get students back into schools, Commissioner Betty Rosa said the issue of digital inequality is one that can no longer be ignored and needs to be talked about on a continual basis.

“Let us not create, as we have done in the past winners and losers, rather all winners in a digital inclusive approach. We know that we can do that work. Let us lead by leading with a focus on the common good,” she said.

Both part one and part two of the Digital Equity Summit are available for viewing on NYSED’s YouTube channel.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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