Pandemic pushes Middletown schools to close digital divide for families in need

District has handed out more than 1,400 wireless hotspot devices

Credit: Nick Graham

Credit: Nick Graham

Local education leaders are thankful for many things this holiday week and ironically among them is one revolutionary learning reform they say wouldn’t have happened as quickly if not for the coronavirus.

Prior to the onset of the global pandemic in March 2020, there was a long-ignored digital divide, especially among low-income school families, between those students who had digital learning devices at home — and wireless access — to do school work and those who didn’t.

The chasm was especially stark in relatively poorer urban school districts nationally and locally, such as Middletown Schools, which has the highest percentage of families with low household incomes eligible for free and reduced school meals among all Butler County districts.

But thanks to coronavirus crises funding — including private company donations, federal and state funding — the once chronic divide has almost entirely disappeared in Middletown and other area schools, said Deb Houser, assistant superintendent for the 6,300-student city schools.

The pandemic, said Houser, “catapulted the digital divide to the top of the priority list.”

Middletown passed out 1,000 wireless “hotspot” devices last school year and 400 so far this year.

Every student in grades 1-12 now has a laptop they take to and from school with kindergarteners having access to laptops while in class.

Combined with a program of providing all students with specially designed learning laptops — with built in security controls against abuse — the digital divide is no more, Houser said.

“When Covid hit (closing schools in spring 2020) and we had students sitting at home with no connection to the school house, that really forced us to really get on the ball and figure a way to connect our students from their home to the school house,” she said.

“Even though Covid was a horrible thing, the reality is it forced our hand. This (closing the digital gap) was always in our strategic plan, but that was for years down the road.”

The influx of new, non-district funding sources allowed Middletown to fast-track its digital plans, she said.

Middletown Superintendent Marlon Styles Jr., who had testified to a U.S. Congressional committee on the divide, had long been one of the most public advocates for digital equity prior to the start of the pandemic and the district was ready when the donated money and digital equipment started coming in.

The problem had two parts, Houser said.

“There was a two-prong approach. It wasn’t only devices (laptops). Once we got a device in every student’s hands we had to tackle that connectivity piece from the (low income) home.”

“We had to get wifi access into the homes,” she said.

Superintendent Jon Graft, whose Butler Tech career system serves Middletown and all other Butler County districts, said the closing of the digital divide was a sea change in education that will now never disappear.

“The textbook used to be that essential tool for students. Textbooks are now nostalgic. Now students take their laptops with them 24/7,” said Graft.

The coronavirus “highlighted an inequity that we saw in society.”

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