A Classroom Divided: Closing the Digital Gap in Ohio Schools

Access to technology, or lack thereof, has long been an issue for Ohio’s K-12 schools. Amid the pandemic, educators and government officials aim to finally close the gap so all students can succeed.

Kathy Lynn Gray
Columbus Parent
Students pick up computers before the start of the 2020-21 school year at Southwood Elementary School, part of Columbus City Schools.

After teaching for more than a decade, Justin Gottshall thought he knew all the stumbling blocks that low-income students at Central Crossing High School in Grove City faced. He’d seen kids come to school hungry, exhausted from babysitting siblings and even dressed in the same clothes day after day.

Still, when COVID-19 shuttered school doors in March 2020 and online classes became the only way to teach, he was shocked by how many students couldn’t log in to participate because they had no internet access at home.

“I was under the assumption that everyone had that,” says Gottshall, who teaches career development at Central Crossing, which is part of South-Western City School District. “But even students who had Wi-Fi, for some, they just kept freezing on the screen.”

The revelation that a huge digital divide still existed among students—in an age where streaming and mobile technology is so pervasive, no less—was sudden and jarring for Gottshall and many other educators across Central Ohio.

South-Western’s experience was typical of districts across the region. Many, such as Columbus City Schools, had trouble sourcing enough devices for students. Even Hilliard, whose One2One initiative already allocated an iPad to every student, experienced struggles due to lack of home internet access. These districts and others tried to bridge the internet gap by extending Wi-Fi signals into school parking lots so students could log on.

Now, more than two years later, the technology gap persists. There’s been plenty of progress, but there’s plenty left to do, say educators and government officials.

Gauging the scope of the divide has been difficult; many school districts in 2020 had no idea how many of their students had quality internet or computers at home. But by January 2021, the Ohio Department of Education was asking for that information. A survey that month found that 83 percent of K–12 students across Ohio had internet access, 3 percent did not and connectivity for 14 percent of students was unknown. The survey also found that 92 percent of students had access to a laptop, desktop computer, tablet or smartphone at home, 3 percent lacked a device and, for 5 percent of students, device access was unknown.

This heat map by BroadbandOhio shows the disparity of high-speed internet access among households in the Buckeye State. Areas with the most access are concentrated around its three largest cities.

Not surprisingly, the divide varies from place to place, with significant variations statewide based on geography and household income. V. Vandhana Veerni, chief technology officer for Columbus City Schools, cites a May 2020 survey that found about 30 percent of Columbus households didn’t have broadband access at home, for example. To help resolve that issue for its students, the district distributed hotspots—devices that provide portable Wi-Fi—to those without internet access; about 12 percent of Columbus’ roughly 47,000 students use hotspots now, she says.

For students who lacked computer equipment, the district distributed 19,000 Chromebook laptops shortly after COVID shut down schools, so that each family had one. In summer 2020, 20,000 more were passed out so that each student who requested one had a device, Veerni says.

This year, she says, the district’s goal is to pass out a Chromebook to each of its students regardless of need.

“That way, they can have access wherever they are and can do their homework online,” she says. “And we take care of safety and security online with our software.”

Jonathan Holmes received Chromebooks from Columbus schools early in 2020 for his daughter, Matera, and son, Julian, who were in fifth and first grades, respectively. He was teaching at Central State University, which had also moved all classes to a virtual format, so he was online while his children were in remote school.

“That was really tough,” Holmes says. Even though they had high-speed internet at home, the service provider was so overloaded with students and at-home workers that it was difficult for more than one of the Holmeses to be online at a time.

By that fall, their provider had increased its capacity and Holmes had upgraded his home router so they could be online simultaneously. But he found that many of his students hadn’t been so lucky and were constantly battling slow Wi-Fi speeds and competing with siblings for bandwidth.

“I got really used to my own students being limited with their internet,” he says. As a result, many couldn’t use their webcams during Zoom classes, so Holmes often was teaching with no students in sight.

The Push to Expand Broadband Access

In South-Western City School District, which serves about 21,000 students in southwestern Franklin County, assistant superintendent of curriculum Brian Bowser knew going into the pandemic there was a digital divide in the schools.

“Some families had a lot of access to the internet and to devices, and some had literally none,” he says. “But I didn’t have a way to quantify it.”

Before the pandemic, the district was concentrating on updating its school buildings to accommodate modern technology. Bowser says that in some buildings, a microwave and computer couldn’t run in the same room at the same time. Within the past nine years, 15 of South-Western’s 16 elementary schools were replaced, and by this fall four of its five middle schools will be new.

The district also had been developing plans pre-pandemic to provide Chromebooks to all students in grades 3–12. Administrators quickly ramped up those efforts and began passing out the devices in May 2020, says Rob Moore, South-Western’s coordinator of technology.

To help students with spotty or nonexistent internet, it provided wireless access in school parking lots and passed out about 1,000 hotspots for students to use at home.

Ohio school districts relied on the state to pay for much of their new equipment and connectivity. It provided $50 million in grants for devices and hotspots beginning in July 2020, with $1.5 million to Columbus City Schools and $151,466 to South-Western. Funding also flowed from other sources, including the city of Columbus, which provided $7.1 million to fund Chromebooks for CCS, Veerni says.

In one respect, Ohio was ahead of the game regarding online learning, says Geoff Andrews, CEO for the Management Council. The council coordinates the work of the Ohio Education Computer Network, which implements technology in the state’s preK–12 schools.

Before the pandemic hit, the council had negotiated a deal with Zoom for 65,000 licenses at $5 each, so when districts suddenly had to switch to online classes in March 2020, those licenses were distributed for teachers’ use.

Once the pandemic closed buildings, the council asked districts to have each teacher query students to find out who had internet access and a laptop or other device at home. It learned that in places like Appalachian Ohio, 30 percent to 50 percent of students lacked internet, compared with 20 percent to 30 percent in urban environments.

Beyond simple internet access, Andrews says the push is now on to make sure Ohioans have what he calls “reliable broadband”—service good enough that students can easily access online school and educational resources at reasonably high speeds without constant glitches.

“We think for students right now, about 25 to 30 percent don’t have that at home, but we expect that to be down to 10 percent in three to four years,” he says.

Many efforts are underway to address connectivity, not just for students but for all Ohioans, Andrews says.

For example, T-Mobile is handing out 7,100 hotspots to economically disadvantaged students. And the 2022–23 state budget includes $250 million for internet service providers to expand access to underserved populations across the state through BroadbandOhio, an office created by Gov. Mike DeWine to oversee and implement the 2019 Ohio Broadband Strategy to boost high-speed internet access.

Using data from February 2020 through August 2021, current BroadbandOhio maps show that 11 percent of Franklin County’s populated areas lack the FCC’s minimum broadband speed (known as 25/3, or 25 megabits per second for downloads and 3 Mbps for uploads). That equates to about 14,051 households. In nearby counties, the picture is bleaker.

In Pickaway County, 65 percent of the populated area has minimal internet service—6,934 households—while Union County stands at 75 percent, or 6,421 households. In other surrounding counties, the proportion of residents with minimal internet is: Delaware, 36 percent (4,218 households); Fairfield, 47 percent (10,277 households); Licking, 47 percent (10,203 households); and Madison, 69 percent (4,790 households).

Across the state, about 1 million Ohioans living in 300,000 households lack broadband internet access, according to DeWine’s office. Efforts to eliminate that disparity through BroadbandOhio began in late 2021.

“I’m convinced that our education system and economy is too intertwined with connectivity for Ohio not to commit to having everyone connected,” Andrews says. He says billions in federal money to expand broadband also is expected to be spread around the nation in the next few years to increase connectivity.

Broadband is ‘the Fourth Utility’

In Central Ohio, a group of public, private and nonprofit organizations formed the Franklin County Digital Equity Coalition two years ago to work together on the digital divide. Its initial report, released in March 2021, concluded that “in-home broadband access is the fourth utility that must be available for students to learn and thrive,” along with heat, electricity and water. It also found that racial disparities existed in connectivity, with 5.6 percent of white residents lacking connectivity compared with 11 percent of Hispanic residents and 12 percent of Black residents.

Among its conclusions: Public Wi-Fi and other alternatives for online learning and work-from-home are impractical over the long term.

“Affordable, reliable home broadband for every Franklin County household is imperative in order to achieve digital equity,” the report concluded. About 30 organizations now make up the coalition, which is working through a variety of committees to expand affordable internet access and availability of low-cost computers to all residents.

While the need for at-home computers and quality internet was most glaring during the days of remote learning, both remain vital to educate students today, Andrews says.

“It’s not just Zoom classes, it’s allowing kids to do online field trips and have access to online resources at home,” he says.

Gottshall, the Central Crossing teacher, says that includes the ability to complete and turn in homework remotely, communicating with parents and students, and allowing students to continue learning if they’re sick or in quarantine.

“It’s made it a lot easier for kids to do the work, for me to find the work they’ve done and for parents to have better access to the work, rather than looking through the black hole of a kid’s backpack,” he says.

Gottshall says most of the digital divide he saw among his students during 2020 has disappeared as students got district-issued Chromebooks and hotspots, worked out how to learn online and gained access to reliable Wi-Fi. He experienced challenges in his own household initially as he, his two school-age children and his wife, Beth, a second-grade teacher, all tried to teach or take online classes at once. He had to install a whole-home Wi-Fi system to accommodate their needs.

“The Chromebooks and the hotspots are totally what the students need to be successful in the classroom,” he says. “There’s still work to be done, but I feel that when students leave school to go home, they can get their work done at home.”

This story is from the Columbus Parent section in the September 2022 issue of Columbus Monthly.