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Story Publication logo August 31, 2020

The Pandemic Has Sounded an Alarm Bell on North Carolina’s Digital Divide

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Bell's School teacher Jodie Williams helps Oliver Fink, 5, spray rabbit repellent on vegetables growing in a raised bed garden as other children play on a blanket in the shade at the preschool in Fletcher on June 22, 2020. Image by Angeli Wright/Asheville Citizen Times/North Carolina News Collaborative. United States, 2020.
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COVID-19 has stalled much of North Carolina's complex economy. With it, families have been pushed to...

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Yolanda Ames sits outside her Grier Heights apartment Wednesday, August 5, 2020. Ames, who cannot afford the internet, is among half of households in her neighborhood in Charlotte with no internet subscription. Image by Jessica Koscielniak. United States, 2020.
Yolanda Ames sits outside her Grier Heights apartment Wednesday, August 5, 2020. Ames, who cannot afford the internet, is among half of households in her neighborhood in Charlotte with no internet subscription. Image by Jessica Koscielniak. United States, 2020.

This report is brought to you by The North Carolina News Collaborative, a coalition of 22 newspapers across the state. This occasional series, Bouncing Back: North Carolina’s Economic Journey to Recovery, is made possible through a grant from The Pulitzer Center.

Yolanda Ames and her boys live in a crowded apartment on a dead end street in East Charlotte’s Grier Heights.

Wires that could bring the world — and her boys’ classrooms — into her home zigzag between poles across her neighborhood.

But that world comes at too steep a cost for Ames. On a muggy afternoon this month, she had about $25 in her bank account, a vague notion of what she could make for dinner and an overdue light bill.

“It’s just hard, and I can’t get help,” she said.

Ames is the head of one of 45,000 households in Charlotte without a subscription to broadband internet. Unlike rural swaths of the state, the city is rich in infrastructure and competition from service providers. Across North Carolina, about 20% of homes have no internet subscription, but in neighborhoods like Ames’, that number is more than doubled.

Here, where the majority of residents are people of color who live in poverty, an internet subscription has been a luxury, not a necessity.

The pandemic brought this internet divide into stark focus. Schools rushed to migrate learning from classroom to living room with little control over how some students would keep up. They doled out iPads and laptops and devices that could provide some data through cellular services.

For families like Ames’, it isn’t enough.

A letter came one day this spring that let Ames know her middle son, Ty’reese Johnson, was falling behind. He’d stopped completing much of his school work, Ames said, recalling the gist of the letter. She worried he wouldn’t advance to freshman year.

Ames knows not having the internet is setting her kids behind, but she doesn’t know how to swing another bill. It’s been two years since she could afford to pay for the internet. Even if she could manage the monthly cost, an overdue balance and a setup fee would need to be paid.

Ames doesn’t mince words.

“My kids are being punished,” she said.

Digital Divide

Across the state, hundreds of thousands of children and teens returned to school this month without leaving their homes.

For some, though, learning means seeking refuge in community centers, fast food restaurants or library parking lots.

The state’s digital divide is no secret. It’s become an emergency, though, as the pandemic forced nearly every school in the state to rely on computers and the internet to teach children.

In rural communities, internet providers haven’t installed the lines needed to connect to high-speed service. More than 75,000 students fall in those holes, state Department of Public Instruction officials estimate.

The urban problem looks far different. Internet providers have laid the infrastructure, but the average monthly cost of $60 is too steep for some. Research shows that people of color are less likely to have internet access than their white counterparts.

State public instruction leaders estimate that about 290,000 students live in homes without a subscription to internet service. And roughly 70,000 live in a home without access to a computer.

“It’s detrimental to our children’s education,” Eric Davis, chairman of the state Board of Education, said of these access issues. “It behooves us to beat the virus and get kids back to school, behooves us to provide reliable internet to all kids.”

Wake County received 50,000 requests for Chromebooks and 16,000 requests for hotspots this summer, according to Matt Dees, communications officer at Wake County Public School System.

Durham County has distributed approximately 20,000 Chromebooks and 5,900 hotspots, according to William Sudderth, communications officer at Durham Public Schools. Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools has distributed over 12,000 iPads and Chromebooks and nearly 1,300 hotspots, according to Jeff Nash, communications director at Chapel Hill-Carrborro City Schools.

According to communications officers at the districts, all three districts have enough devices to meet all of the requests.

While some students still haven’t received their laptops and hotspots in every school district, advocates for digital equity say they are impressed with the speed and magnitude of the effort.

“If you asked anyone in Durham a year ago, ‘can you give a computer to every young person in Durham public schools who needs one?’ folks would have told you, ‘hell no,’” said David Reese, CEO of the Durham Children’s Initiative, a youth services provider in East Durham.

“Those young people that need to be connected have hardware and they also have internet connectivity which was a problem in our community that we could not solve a year ago, two years ago, three years ago.”

But Reese said that there’s more work to be done to provide students and parents with the digital literacy they need to use the laptops. Otherwise, he said, they’re just “paperweights.”

“A laptop is one thing but you have to know how to use it and you have to know how to use Zoom and Slack and Canvas and all of those things,” said Alexandra Zagbayou, executive director of Student U, a community organization in Durham that supports first-generation college students.

Other advocates are concerned that the technology provided to students may not be sufficient long-term.

“Next year, is there going to be more federal money to buy replacement Chromebooks? Is there going to be a budget for schools to fix the ones they have?” asked Michael Abensour, executive director of the Kramden Institute, which refurbishes computers for students across North Carolina.

Pat Millen has been grappling with the issue since 2013, when his then 12-year-old daughter alerted him that her teachers built assignments around the assumption that all of her classmates had computers and the internet at home.

“Some kids don’t, and that’s not fair,” Millen remembers his daughter noting.

Millen took her challenge to the daughter’s principal at Davidson Elementary. He asked if there was a digital divide.

“It turns out that every school has one,” Millen said.

They got busy. The school assessed how many students needed laptops, and Millen partnered with local businesses to provide them. The organization, called Eliminate the Digital Divide or E2D for short, has since expanded to serve over 145 schools in Mecklenburg County.

Millen said the digital divide has not deepened since the pandemic — but it has made it an emergency.

“We’re all just more aware of what that disparity represents. Not having a computer right now has never been a worse situation because of all the teaching and learning that has to happen,” he said. “The need isn’t greater. The stakes are higher.”

Despite their work, Millen estimates thousands of students in Charlotte still need access to the internet. Most, he said, are students of color.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools declined to make anyone available for this report.

For some schools in Charlotte, the pandemic was an alarm bell.

Kelly Lalli, a fourth and fifth grade math and literacy teacher at Cotswold Elementary, said the school got busy providing technology and internet access to students. She said school administrators were keenly aware of the acute needs in the community the school serves.

In 2017, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools merged Cotswold with Billingsville to try to reverse resegregation. The two schools previously served different demographics — Billingsville students were mostly Black and came from the low-income Grier Heights community, where Ames lives. Cotswold students were mostly white.

School faculty distributed Chromebooks and internet hotspots to students in the spring, and Lalli said they were able to reach nearly all families.

But parents say efforts vary school by school, teacher by teacher.

Takeshia Reed-Davis’ five children all go to different schools. Between them, they have three school-issued laptops and two school-issued iPads. Months into the pandemic, though, only one of the laptops still worked properly. By the end of the school year, her three older children shared it.

As the new school year approached, Reed-Davis fretted. Her internet connection is spotty and she braced for more months managing five children absorbed in dozens of different subjects.

She braced for a more dire circumstance. Reed-Davis lost her job during the pandemic and she has been waiting for unemployment benefits to arrive. Without that help, she worries she won’t be able to keep her internet subscription.

“I’m just trying to do the best I can,” she said. “I feel like if I wasn’t the type of person who has faith in God, I would be going crazy.”

Haves and Have Nots

The lines between the haves and have nots are as thin as a highway in Charlotte.

Majority black neighborhoods in the city’s “crescent,” an arc surrounding the area north of Uptown, are the ones with the highest rates of no internet subscription. And families in the city’s “wedge,” which encompasses neighborhoods like Sedgefield and Myers Park, where many white families reside, generally have internet subscriptions.

“This is digital redlining,” said J’Tanya Adams, the former regional director of EveryoneOn, a nonprofit that works to close the digital divide in the city. “You’re left behind. That’s arrested development is what that’s called.”

Adams worries there is little the school system can do to equalize the situation until the pandemic eases.

“I hate to sound like a broken record, but these kids won’t be getting an education until you go back to school,” Adams said. “And before COVID, we already had an education gap.”

Adams said internet access should be treated like a utility instead of a luxury.

Ames never imagined a moment in which her sons and grandson would need to log on to devices to learn literature and social studies and science.

The timing could not have been worse. Ames is recovering from cancer and has no full-time job. Before the pandemic, she cobbled together enough money from styling hair for neighbors or watching their kids, but her compromised immunity has made such hustles too dangerous.

A push and pull of emotions washed over Ames one afternoon this month. She felt overwhelmed. She felt angry. Mostly, though, she felt inadequate.

She knows Ty’reese needed help she couldn’t provide. She wasn’t even sure how to turn on the computer the school lent him.

“Blame it on me,” she said. “I didn’t have the income to get him where he needed to be.”

Ty’reese’s school tried to help. They lent him a wireless hotspot, a cellular device that can be used to log on to the internet.

He lost it. Then, another one. When he managed to hold on to one long enough, he ran down the data playing games, watching YouTube videos and chatting with friends.

Eventually, Ty’reese began seeking refuge at nearby Grier Heights Community Center, which formerly housed Billingsville School. By then, though, he’d already fallen behind on his school work, prompting the letter of warning to his mother.

Ty’reese knows he bears some of the blame for his performance last year. He admits he stopped doing his school work. Virtual learning, he said, was a struggle.

“It’s kind of harder to process things,” he said.

Ty’reese began freshman year at Myers Park High School last week. He vowed to not take any chances this school year.

He reported to Grier Heights Community Center early in the morning on the first day of school. He joined a few dozen other neighborhood kids who use the center’s internet access to log on to their online classrooms. In Grier Heights, only half of residents have internet in their homes.

Ty’reese sat at a table with another student, eyebrows furrowed as he stared at a computer screen. He waved over Tijua Robinson, the center’s executive director, to troubleshoot a technical issue.

He said he would rather be in a real classroom with teachers who can talk him through a problem.

But he knows he has to stay focused this year. He knows what’s at stake. He wants to go to law school one day.

At 14, though, he already thinks the odds are stacked against boys like him.

“It’s harder growing up being Black,” he said.

Charlotte Observer data reporter Gavin Off contributed to this report.

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