Norfolk schools close in on digital divide as pandemic leaves students without computers

Posted at 3:56 PM, Apr 20, 2020
and last updated 2020-04-20 16:56:32-04

NORFOLK, Va.— Schoolwork is challenging enough, but imagine if you didn’t have the basic resources to get it done.

That’s the case for thousands of students in Norfolk, but the school district is working to fix the problem.

“The digital divide is not necessarily what’s in the school, it’s what’s in the student’s home—that’s where the challenge is,” says Norfolk Public Schools Senior Director of IT Jesse Zamora.

Norfolk Public Schools students took a survey before the shutdown was announced. Out of about 30,000 students, more than 2,100 reported they did not have a computer, while more than 1,700 didn’t have internet access.

This inequality in technology hinders students while trying to complete assignments or connect with their classmates.

“Our teachers are using Zoom with their students. Some students don’t have the benefit of doing that. These devices give them the ability to not only learn, but also communicate with the rest of their classmates in class as well as their teachers,” says Zamora.

More than a month after the survey, students are getting the technology they need to succeed.

“You have to make sure that the infrastructure is solid before you put a ton of devices on the network, and that is something we have been building,” says Zamora.

Monday, staff members toted out Chromebooks along with student-parent checkout forms at Granby High School to students who reported they needed one.

Although many students have smartphones, it’s no substitution for a physical computer - especially when it comes to writing a paper or doing research.

Smartphones don’t allow students to fully engage in online learning, but that’s exactly what one high school senior has been using.

Bethenn Loving is a senior at Granby High School who just borrowed a Chromebook. He says he usually does most of his work on his phone, including writing papers, which takes hours longer that it normally would.

“I had to write it down and then type it on my phone. Using a Chromebook, I can type it and get things done a lot faster," says Loving.

The distribution plan starts with high school seniors, but eventually all students will get a device. Anyone who misses the pickup day can reschedule with their school’s administration.

Additionally, the IT department is working to make the internet signal is strong enough for students to access the Wi-Fi from the parking lot until mobile hotspots are distributed.

Zamora says the hotspots are on order now and are expected to be distributed in May.

Click here for full coronavirus coverage.