As Schools Start Remotely, Districts Work To Diminish The Digital Divide

Aug 10, 2020

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, about 46,200 students in Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky have no internet service at home. As more schools start the year remote due to the coronavirus pandemic, a pilot program is working to change that.

As Greater Cincinnati districts lay out their return to school plans in the midst of a pandemic, they're taking steps to make sure students have a reliable internet connection. Cincinnati Bell, Cincinnati Public Schools, Greater Cincinnati Foundation, United Way of Greater Cincinnati and ComputerXpress are partnering to help thousands of students access low-cost internet connectivity at home.

So far, Cincinnati Bell has installed internet in 200 homes as part of the "Connect Our Students" program. Initially, it will help 2,000 students in these Cincinnati schools:

  • Rockdale Academy
  • South Avondale School
  • Hays-Porter Elementary
  • Roberts Academy
  • Fairview Clifton German Language School

And 884 qualifying students in all Northern Kentucky districts will receive low-cost internet connectivity at home.

Cincinnati Bell's Michele Lehmkuhl says the company has spent over $1 billion to build out fiber. "But that investment seems insignificant if we can't help local families keep their children connected during the day," she says.

Lehmkuhl says Bell is committed to this pilot program and will continue to have some sort of reduced cost for students who need it, even after the pandemic ends.

The company, along with its charitable partners, see "Connect Our Students" as a much-needed initiative and will look for additional funders.

"We're going to have to challenge ourselves to look at this issue as we go into the next school years, and what does that mean for families as we make sure families have what they need so their kids can be active learners?" Greater Cincinnati United Way CEO Moira Weir says.

The Stimulus Bill Could Help

This month, Kentucky education and economic development leaders called on Congress to put laptops and high-speed internet into its next stimulus bill. Former Kentucky Commissioner of Education Dr. Wayne Lewis said on a Zoom call Aug. 3, "It's no secret that across our country we have had significant differences in the learning opportunities between kids who have and kids who have not."

In that same news conference, Peter Hille, president of the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development, pointed out it used to be just the school bus needed to bring education to students. It's now the internet.

"Let's let everybody drive on the information super highway," he said. "Let's take down the toll booths. Let's flip the switch. Let's let that access be made available to every household, every kid, so all of our kids can do well."

Contact Bell And Your School To See If You're Eligible

At its Aug. 3 school board meeting, Cincinnati Public Schools' Lead Network Engineer Jeremy Gollihue said thousands of devices have been distributed to those who need them, but some students have failed to sign-up for internet service. He said 30% need access but only 7% had applied. As a result, representatives from Cincinnati Bell will be present at the district's device pick-up days at area schools. 

Ohio Has A New Grant For Schools

Fifty million dollars is now available for hotspots and internet-enabled devices through the Broadband Ohio Connectivity Grant.

Schools can begin applying at ohio-k12.help/broadbandohio-connectivity-grant/.

Because many districts have already purchased equipment, the grant is also available retroactively for purchases made since July 1 of this year. The application period will close Friday, Aug. 21.

Internet providers have already begun to list their equipment and pricing information in one centralized location to benefit Ohio schools through a Request for Information. Visit procure.ohio.gov to review the RFI.