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With Schools Canceled By COVID-19, Kansas City's Digital Divide Could Get Wider

Glenn Carstens-Peters
With the Coronavirus outbreak forcing many to work or study online getting widespread broadband access to those without it is a high priority

With COVID-19 forcing schools across the metro to cancel classes and many peole to work from home, the “digital divide" between those with easy and reliable access to the internet at home and those without, is on the minds of many. 

According to a recent report from Broadband Now, the number of people without access to the internet in the US may be 42 million, nearly double the reported number from the Federal Communications Commission.

“Internet Service Providers self-report to the FCC,” said Linda Poon, a staff writer with CityLab, speaking Tuesday with Gina Kauffman on KCUR’s Up to Date Special Coverage: Coronavirus In KC. “So the number without any broadband connection is likely much larger than we thought.”

On Monday, all 15 school districts within the limits of Kansas City, Missouri, announced they would cancel classes through the first week of April. On the Kansas side, all six public school districts in Johnson County announced they would be closed through at least April 5.

Katie Boody, founder and CEO of Kansas City-based education think tank Lean Lab, said it will be a difficult transition for teachers, administrators, parents and students. 

“KCPS is so fragmented, each school system has its own board, their own superintendent but it also means they each have their own technology needs,” said Boody. “We have some that are shining stars with great plans and some that are just starting to address these issues”

Boody added the digital disparity could lead to some groups of students lagging behind others in the coming weeks, if schools remain closed. 

“You have the potential for a lot of duplicative efforts and a lack of coordination. So we're trying to figure out how to work smarter and share what’s worked really great for some with others that are in need right now," she said. 

Some solutions are being offered. Charter Communications, for example, is providing relief through 60 days of free Spectrum broadband and Wi-Fi for families with K-12 and college students.

Credit Connecting for Good
Connecting for Good
Connecting for Good works to provide internet access, computers and digital skills to people lacking those resources

Tom Esselman, CEO of Connecting for Good, told KCUR this divide is an issue people in his organization were focused on reducing long before the coronavirus came along. 

“We’ve been talking about what we call ‘digital inclusion’ for eight years and it wasn't a very well understood idea, but now it’s in the spotlight,” said Esselman. 

With closures of libraries and other facilities often used to connect to the internet, groups like Connecting for Good and the Kansas City Coalition for Digital Inclusion are stepping up to provide affordable and easy access.

“With the meeting restrictions limiting us to 10 people, we will be offering free hotspots and access to computers, just by appointment now,” Esselman said.

Esselman added that Connecting for Good will also be giving away five desktops and three laptops each week to those who need it. 

Noah Taborda is a new intern for KCUR. Reach out to him on twitter @NoahTaborda

As KCUR's health reporter, I cover the Kansas City metro in a way that reflects our expanding understanding of what health means and the ways it touches different communities and different areas in distinct ways. I will provide a platform to amplify ideas and issues often underrepresented in the media and marginalized people and communities in an authentic and honest way that goes beyond the surface of the issues. I will endeavor to find and include in my work local experts and organizations that have their ears to the ground and a beat on the health needs of the community. Reach me at noahtaborda@kcur.org.
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