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Phoenix distributes nearly 10,000 laptops to combat digital divide

Arizona Republic logo Arizona Republic 1/22/2021 Megan Taros, Arizona Republic
a group of people in military uniform standing in front of a building: Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego, Councilwoman Laura Pastor, Councilmember Carlos Garcia, Dr. Larry Weeks, Pastors Jamie Rasmussen and Scott Anderson, and city staff pose for a photo at the Phoenix Convention Center. The city distributed nearly 10,000 internet-enabled laptops to school districts as part of a larger effort to bridge the digital divide. © Courtesy of City of Phoenix Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego, Councilwoman Laura Pastor, Councilmember Carlos Garcia, Dr. Larry Weeks, Pastors Jamie Rasmussen and Scott Anderson, and city staff pose for a photo at the Phoenix Convention Center. The city distributed nearly 10,000 internet-enabled laptops to school districts as part of a larger effort to bridge the digital divide.

Phoenix began distributing nearly 10,000 laptops equipped with internet to area school districts this week to help bridge the digital divide accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The city purchased the laptops using some of the $2 million in CARES funding it allocated to address the digital divide, as well as a $1 million donation from Scottsdale Bible Church and more than 5,000 laptops provided by School Connect, a nonprofit that works to address structural issues in education. The city did not immediately provide exactly how much money it kicked in.

Phoenix already had spent $660,000 of the $2 million allotment this spring to purchase tablets for children in public housing. The city had found many families couldn't afford internet or that the cables in their homes were not equipped for a high-speed connection.

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The divide was hidden in plain sight as low-income families relied on public places like libraries for access, but when the pandemic shut those places down, the situation worsened, said Councilmember Laura Pastor, who is leading a coalition of city, business and school leaders to create short- and long-term solutions.

"What COVID-19 exacerbated here is that poverty creates a gap with school districts, especially those that don't have a lot of money," Pastor said. "It demonstrated to (City Council) that it's super important to close the digital divide to have a workforce for the future."

a group of people looking at a laptop: Nov 19, 2020; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Imelda Hartley sits with her sons Jean Paul Ortiz and Jesus Ortiz (right) as they work on their online education from the kitchen table in Phoenix. Mandatory Credit: Rob Schumacher/The Arizona Republic via USA TODAY NETWORK © Rob Schumacher/The Republic Nov 19, 2020; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Imelda Hartley sits with her sons Jean Paul Ortiz and Jesus Ortiz (right) as they work on their online education from the kitchen table in Phoenix. Mandatory Credit: Rob Schumacher/The Arizona Republic via USA TODAY NETWORK

Helping students left behind

Phoenix's Youth and Education Office conducted a survey early in the pandemic to assess the needs of school districts and found technology for students to learn from home was one of the most common.

Some districts found that providing laptops wasn't enough to help every student because of a lack of internet access in homes, which is why the laptops provided this week have built-in connectivity.

Districts also have sought to provide WiFi hotspots to their students without an internet connection.

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Affordability is an issue that affected Phoenix families before the pandemic. A lack of competition for providers makes the U.S. one of the most expensive places for monthly internet rates compared to similarly developed countries, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis.

The digital divide disproportionately harms students of color and those living in poverty as students transitioned to distance learning. Many students were unable to remotely attend class especially in the early days of the pandemic, said Linda Jeffries, spokeswoman for Phoenix Elementary School District.

The pandemic also accelerated the shift to digital and schools anticipate continuing to use programs like Zoom even after the pandemic ends.

"This is just the start of distance learning," Jeffries said. "We know this is going to be the wave of the future and we want all students regardless of color or socioeconomic status to be able to learn and connect with their teachers."

Phoenix Elementary School District received 400 laptops, which it will now own and decide how to distribute to students.

a man sitting at a table using a laptop computer: Imelda Hartley sits with her sons Jean Paul Ortiz and Jesus Ortiz (right) as they do their schoolwork online from the kitchen table in Phoenix on Nov 19, 2020. © Rob Schumacher/The Republic Imelda Hartley sits with her sons Jean Paul Ortiz and Jesus Ortiz (right) as they do their schoolwork online from the kitchen table in Phoenix on Nov 19, 2020.

10,000 laptops to 15 Phoenix school districts

Phoenix determined how many devices to give each district based on criteria such as district need, the number of students on free and reduced lunch and the number of schools in low-income communities.

Some Phoenix districts didn't need the computers, while others used district-specific platforms or requirements such as Apple products and could not support the Windows laptops.

Here's the breakdown of how many laptops the city provided 15 districts:

  • Balsz Elementary District: 1,200.
  • Cartwright Elementary District: 1,000.
  • Cave Creek Unified District: 232.
  • Fowler Elementary District: 475.
  • Isaac Elementary District: 1,973.
  • Kyrene Elementary District: 599.
  • Littleton Elementary District: 125.
  • Pendergast Elementary District: 200.
  • Phoenix Elementary District: 400.
  • Phoenix Union High School District: 1,000.
  • Riverside Elementary District: 880.
  • Tolleson Elementary District: 589.
  • Tolleson Union High School District: 337.
  • Union Elementary District: 195.
  • Wilson Elementary District: 305.

The effort can help more than students

The digital divide impacts not only education, but other areas of civic engagement.

Karen Mossberger, director of the school of public affairs at Arizona State University who studies digital inequality, has said the internet fosters political participation and connects people with jobs as well as resources and others in the community.

Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego agreed that access to the laptops would help more than students, offering parents an opportunity to pursue many aspects of life now handled online.

"I suspect this will be useful for parents as well to use for job applications and perhaps register for a COVID vaccine," Gallego said.

Thinking long-term

Beyond providing the laptops and WiFi-enabled tablets last spring, Phoenix made WiFi available outside of public buildings and has vans that serve as mobile hotspots in underserved areas. Still, experts say these are short-term solutions that don't tackle structural inequities.

a person taking a selfie in front of a laptop: Jean Paul Ortiz does schoolwork at home in Phoenix. Many schools assign laptops to students for distance learning, but not every household has Wi-Fi. © Rob Schumacher/The Republic Jean Paul Ortiz does schoolwork at home in Phoenix. Many schools assign laptops to students for distance learning, but not every household has Wi-Fi.

One effort at a longer term fix is Phoenix's internet creativity plan that would connect students back to their school's WiFi. The plan will soon be tested in neighborhoods with a disproportionate lack of internet access before it’s implemented in school districts. This plan would only allow students to access websites that could be used for school.  

City leaders outside of Phoenix also are recognizing the need to bridge the divide. Chandler and Mesa have both used some coronavirus relief funds from the federal government to help students access technology.

Mesa's Mayor John Giles recently said the city must do more to bridge the digital divide. He wants Mesa to make it a top priority this year, and to adopt a plan for a citywide conduit system to get fiber networks to every home and business in Mesa.

Megan Taros covers south Phoenix for The Arizona Republic. Have a tip? Reach her at mtaros@gannett.com or on Twitter @megataros. Her coverage is supported by Report for America and a grant from the Vitalyst Health Foundation.

This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Phoenix distributes nearly 10,000 laptops to combat digital divide

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