Middletown school leader tells Congress of his district’s digital gap

Differences in access to technology and internet access is a divide that plagues many parts of America, and locally it’s a big problem among low-income families in Middletown Schools, according to the district leader’s recent testimony to the U.S. House of Representatives’ Education and Labor Committee.

Superintendent Marlon Styles Jr. told federal lawmakers earlier this month via a live, interactive digital discussion that his school system is suffering and needs assistance in assuring needy families have internet access and digital devices, both of which were made all the more urgent by the recent coronavirus shutdown of schools.

“The (digital) equity gap is taking center stage in this country,” Styles said.

“Students,” he said, “are either logged in or logged out” of internet learning.

Middletown is one of the few school systems in southwest Ohio at which 100 percent of school families fall within household income categories to qualify for federal free and reduced school meals.

About 20 percent of Middletown’s 6,300 students come from homes without access either via internet cable or wireless systems to digital learning programs produced by their teachers in the district. Moreover, many students also lack computers, laptops, digital notebooks or other mobile devices on which to learn digitally, said district officials.

The coronavirus shutdowns of schools mandated by state health officials in March brought Middletown’s long-standing, digital divide problem to the forefront as about 1,200 students could not receive or participant digitally in remote learning.

School officials scrambled to try to fill the digital gap but delivering paper lessons to some households and offering free wi-fi access to school families who could come to the campuses of the district’s 10 schools and do school work in cars or outside the building.

“Many families are trying to figure out how to keep food on the table,” Styles told the House members.

“Imagine being a grandparent responsible for raising multiple kids right now and you have no laptop in the home and you have no clue how to teach proportions or help the 12th grade student in your house meet the graduation requirements,” he said.

“This equity gap is causing substantial learning loss. Marginalized students will have experienced a significant loss of instructional time due to the (school) closures,” said Styles.

He told the Congressional committee members “every child needs a computer device … and everyone needs reliable internet access.”

Afterwards Styles said he appreciated being able to speak to the more than half-dozen House members who participated in the interactive broadcast, which allowed them to ask questions.

“It was inspiring to engage in meaningful dialogue with members of Congress about the unjust inequities that historically marginalized students face every day,” he said.

“The House Education and Labor Committee was very passionate and curious about the importance of ensuring all students have access to reliable internet access in their homes.”

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