Poverty & Safety Net
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Access Denied: The impact of Cleveland’s digital divide on students

Eboney Thornton
Assistant Director, Communications
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February 16, 2021
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The library, a friend’s porch, the parking lot of the local McDonald’s, these were some of the places my daughters’ friends went to, so they could login to school at the beginning of the pandemic. And they weren’t alone. In Cuyahoga County, 25 percent of residents don’t have access to the internet or a computer. In Cleveland, 30 percent of residents don’t have internet or reliable high-speed service.[1]

 In Cleveland, 30 percent of residents don’t have internet or reliable high-speed service.

March 2020 was the last time that my, and many other children, physically entered a classroom. To reduce the spread of the virus, schools moved to online, or remote, learning, with hopes that they would be able to resume in-person classes within a few weeks of the outbreak.  

It didn’t happen.  

While many school districts were able to quickly move classes online, the Cleveland Metropolitan School District (CMSD) couldn’t due to families not having reliable access to a computer and/or internet service off school grounds. Although many knew that some families in the CMSD district lacked certain technologies, like a computer or internet service, the extent of the problem was shocking. At the beginning of the pandemic, two-thirds of CMSD students didn’t have a computer and 40 percent of CMSD families didn’t have internet service.[2] To address this issue, the district provided weekly paper packets and educational resources to help students maintain their studies.

 The school district spent nearly $14 million to purchase laptops and Wi-Fi hotspots so students would be able to participate in remote learning for the 2020-2021 school year.

As the 2019-2020 school year ended and the pandemic continued, the fact that many CMSD families lacked access to computer and internet services had to be addressed quickly. Recognizing that, the school district spent nearly $14 million to purchase laptops and Wi-Fi hotspots so students would be able to participate in remote learning for the 2020-2021 school year. Additionally, Cuyahoga County and community foundations like the Cleveland Foundation also made investments to help bridge the digital divide.[3]  

As a born-and-bred Clevelander, my love for the city doesn’t blind me to its issues, like the digital divide. In 2017, an analysis conducted by the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, found that AT&T, one of Cleveland’s internet providers, “systematically discriminated against lower-income Cleveland neighborhoods in its deployment of home internet and video technologies over the past decade.”[4] And many of those lower-income neighborhoods—Hough, Glenville, St. Clair-Superior, Central, Fairfax—are also predominately Black.  

As I explored the digital divide of Cleveland, I was reminded of the practice of redlining, a discriminatory practice where banks and mortgage companies refused to loan funds to people who lived in certain neighborhoods. In Cleveland, those neighborhoods look a lot like what historically has been called the inner city or urban areas—predominately black areas with large sections of low-income and high-poverty areas.  

But times have changed right? When comparing the maps below the answer is a resounding no. Even with an 85-year difference between the two, their similarities are shocking. The redlining map of Cleveland from 1930 shows many – too many– similarities to the 2016 map of neighborhoods that did not receive adequate internet service by AT&T. These inequities were even further highlighted by the pandemic.  

The red color indicates neighborhoods redlined in the 1930s. Map Source: Case Western Reserve University, retrieved from Cleveland Scene  

Source: https://www.digitalinclusion.org/blog/2017/03/10/atts-digital-redlining-of-cleveland/

 What can we do to make it better?

What can we do to make it better? It starts with understanding and acknowledging the frustration of those who have systematically been denied service. And it needs to be more than words; it requires purposeful and positive actions. People are tired of hearing that a change is coming; they want to see it and be a part of it. Creating a place for those impacted by this issue to have a say and participate in the process can make a significant difference.  

How to do that?

  1. Listen and put yourself in their shoes. You can’t know the struggle unless you experience it firsthand, so go into areas with slow and lagging services so you can understand the severity of the issue.
  2. Assess and re-evaluate free and low-cost internet service. Ensuring that these services can handle the broadband usage required to download and view information—like applications, e-textbooks and video calls, could help many students maintain and complete their workload.
  3. Educate and explain the process. Decisions on what to do to address the digital divide should be transparent, shared everywhere and easily accessible to all. Leaders should also go out into the community and meet residents affected by this issue.[1] A Turning Point: Digging into the digital divide and how it affects people of color disproportionately. https://www.wkyc.com/article/news/community/turning-point/how-the-digital-divide-affects-people-of-color-disproportionately/95-3e5fcfca-4302-49b7-a86b-bfce57c650ae Accessed February 8, 2021  

[2] A Turning Point: Digging into the digital divide and how it affects people of color disproportionately. https://www.wkyc.com/article/news/community/turning-point/how-the-digital-divide-affects-people-of-color-disproportionately/95-3e5fcfca-4302-49b7-a86b-bfce57c650ae Accessed February 9, 2021  

[3] Cleveland schools scramble for fix to digital divide as school starts remotely, https://www.cleveland.com/education/2020/08/cleveland-schools-scramble-for-fix-to-digital-divide-as-school-starts-remotely.html Accessed February 10, 2021  

[4] AT&T’s Digital Redlining Of Cleveland, https://www.digitalinclusion.org/blog/2017/03/10/atts-digital-redlining-of-cleveland/ Accessed February 9, 2021

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