Mar 23, 2020 - COVID

CMS is closed until May 15. Could it widen or bridge the digital divide?



This story was last updated at 6:15 p.m. on Monday, March 30. We’ll update this regularly as part of the Agenda’s ongoing coronavirus coverage. Any new information will be added below and included in our daily newsletter.

On March 23, Governor Roy Cooper made an executive order to keep all K-12 public schools in North Carolina closed until at least May 15.

Superintendent of the Department of Public Instruction Mark Johnson urges parents to set a schedule and stick to it, including going to bed and getting up at the same time each day. “We cannot treat this as a long break,” Johnson said.

CMS has also created a webpage with at-home learning resources, sorted by grade level. The district recommends printing out these worksheets, keeping kids on a schedule, and using these at-home, e-learning lessons. Johnson also recommends parents and guardians use for a free, at-home learning tool.

If you don’t have internet access at home, Spectrum is providing free WiFi for 60 days.

Last week, CMS started identifying which students need resources for at-home learning — like internet or a computer — and how to make sure those students get what they need.

“We are calling parents to see if they have technology at home, and if they don’t they can come to school to pick it up,” a teacher at Dorothy J. Vaughn Elementary told the Agenda.

She said over the last week, teachers have been using Canvas, Google Hangouts, and Zoom to connect with students, and they’ve been in close communication with parents to make sure they’re prepared for at-home learning. Assignments were given but not taken for a grade.

“This is unprecedented to do online K-12 learning for 150,000 students at the drop of a hat,” CMS board member Elyse Dashew said. “I want us all to pull together, and be aware of how hard this school closure is going to hit some of our students who have real rough lives at home, because for a lot of kids, the safest place to be is at school.”

Even with free internet and distribution of Chromebooks, there’s a bigger question here: Is equitable access to learning possible, considering the existing technology divide?

Bruce Clark is the executive director of Digital Charlotte, an initiative to deliver digital and media literacy endowed by the Knight School of Communication at Queens University of Charlotte.

“The communities most impacted by this are the communities that are always the most impacted. The digital divide was there before COVID-19,” he said.

When we think of technology, Clark explained, there are three things to consider: the actual hardware, internet connection, and the skill required to make those things work together, also called digital literacy.

Because students have been able to take home Chromebooks, Clark said that, in theory, they should be able to do whatever schoolwork they need to accomplish. But you still have the think about the digital literacy and internet access pieces.

Clark said there are about 14,000 households within CMS without internet, and that’s a conservative estimate.

Companies are stepping up and providing free or more affordable internet options amid the pandemic, but even so, there are many students who don’t have space for a desk or a quiet place to do their work, making accessing educational tools difficult.

Pat Millen, founder of E2D, a local nonprofit that connects students in need with technology, said some homes in more vulnerable neighborhoods don’t have the capability to be wired for internet, and homeless students within CMS likely don’t have the ability to setup internet either, even if it is free.

In the past, E2D has worked to provide hotspots, which create access to broadband but it’s slower and data is often capped. Millen said with 100 percent of learning happening online now, the data could easily be used up within the first week.

E2D has secured 6,000 faster hotspots through Sprint, and the CMS Foundation donated $1 million to pay for six months of internet access for those hotspots.

Students in need will be able to collect the hotspots from their schools through sort of a “triage system,” Millen said. Each school will be working on its own system for identifying students in need and making sure those students get what they need once the hotspots come in.

“The downside is, 6,000 is not nearly enough to handle the need of all the families in CMS struggling to get broadband,” Millen said. “We need to create access to the extent that it’s possible.”

Some school districts, including in Philadelphia, have shut down schools without the option of remote learning. Educators there chose to do so because there was no one to guarantee equitable learning opportunities for all students.

“These kids are already left behind,” Clark said. “This is just shining a bright light on existing inequities. We won’t know the impact of this until we’re 10 to 20 years down the road and see what jobs they’re not getting, what they can’t have access too.”

The bright side, Clark said, is that education leaders are now being forced to address the digital divide within CMS, not just in meetings and talks, but with decisive action.

“I believe Charlotte recognizes upward mobility is so important,” Millen said. “We’ve never been more game to come up with meaningful solutions than we are right now.”

Amy Hawn Nelson, a CMS parent, Penn State researcher, and longtime public schools advocate, is also worried about the equity gap widening.

“This is some kids’ worse nightmare. There’s going to be a lot of trauma, stress,” Hawn Nelson said. “We’re going to have to pay the piper on that eventually. COVID has widened the opportunity gap in our district. I don’t think there’s a solution for it, but we’re going to have to remediate for it.”

Hawn Nelson said children may experience developmental delays as a result of school closures, too. Those delays look a little different for each age group.

For example, a two-year-old who’d typically attend a daycare program might be delayed in potty training, and middle schoolers are missing out on serious social and emotional connectivity and development, she said.

“For a third-grader, it’s all academic. I worry about those transition skills. There’s a third-grader in a small apartment with no books, no digital devices, and it’s not great.”

Students with resources, educated parents, and nourishing environments will likely be fine, Hawn Nelson said. “But the hourly worker, everything they have is at risk right now … a lot of that we’re not thinking about.”

“We are ahead of other communities, but there’s a significant digital divide in this community, and I am concerned about that,” Dashew said. “I am concerned that the equity issues we have in this community will be widened by schools closing, and we have to do everything we can to bridge that.”

Other items addressed in Gov. Cooper’s press conference on Monday:

  • Teacher pay: Cooper said that he wants teachers, school administrators, and staff to be paid for the period of in-person work they are missing.
  • High-school graduation: State officials said that if your child is on track to graduate in June 2020, they will make sure that still happens.

The grab-and-go meal system, put in place by CMS last Tuesday, will continue through the mandated closure.

Students can pick up grab-and-go breakfast and lunch at across approximately 70 sites across Charlotte and Mecklenburg County

“While schools are closed, we feel strongly that students have their most basic needs met — one of those is meals.”

Winston said the grab-and-go meals are primarily for those who are economically disadvantaged, but the meals are free to all students ages 18 and under.

How it’ll work: Pick-up is from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. Students and families can visit any of the 70 participating schools and sites; it does not have to be the school your child attends. Parents and guardians are asked to stay in the car while staff members hand food out based on the number of children in the car.

Neither identification nor payment is required for the meals, Winston said.

If parents/guardians do not have transportation, they should contact their child’s school or CMS directly. The program starts on Tuesday, March 17.

Food Distribution

If you’d like to help, or are in need of help, here are some resources:

  • You can plug in your home address here to see if there are free or reduced-cost internet options available in your area.
  • CMS has a webpage with e-learning resources, sorted by grade level.
  • The Loyalist Market, and other restaurants throughout Charlotte, are providing free meals for students. If you’d like to donate to the cause, you can do so here.
  • Spectrum is providing free internet for students while schools are closed. Call 1.844.488.8398 to see if you qualify, and get set up.
  • The Bulb, a nonprofit that delivers healthy foods to those experiencing food insecurity, needs help with delivery, delivering boxes, fresh food items and staple good donations, and monetary donations. Let them know if you need or wish to help here.
  • Deli St. in Plaza Midwood is providing free bagged lunches for students.
  • Several churches have set up free, grab-and-go lunch pickups. You can view some here.


Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools:

CMS schools are closed until at least May 15, as mandated in Gov. Roy Cooper’s executive order. Athletics for all grade levels have also been canceled, including practices, games, and tournaments.

Private schools:

  • Charlotte Country Day broke for spring break early, which runs through next week. The school is moving to online instruction starting March 25, so school is canceled March 23-24 to give teachers time to prepare.
  • Charlotte Latin broke for spring break early and will move to remote learning. They’ll do a test run on Tuesday, March 24, and the full program will begin on March 25.
  • Providence Day School has said after its spring break is over, it will switch to online instruction, according to WFAE.
  • Diocese of Charlotte has suspended classes March 16-27. All schools under the diocese — including nine in the Charlotte area — will move to remote learning. See full list of Charlotte Catholic schools impacted here.
  • Charlotte Christian is on spring break through March 23. School will be closed March 23-24, and online instruction will take place March 25 to April 3.
  • SouthLake Christian in Huntersville is on spring break until March 30; after break they’ll move to online instruction.

Higher education:

UNC Charlotte
UNC Charlotte
  • All UNC System institutions, including UNC Charlotte, are moving classes online no later than March 20. “Our goal is to return to in-person instruction as soon as reasonably possible,” UNC Charlotte said on Wednesday. Students were asked to leave residence halls by March 20, although the school said March 30 it would issue prorated refunds for housing and dining for the spring semester.
  • Central Piedmont Community College is extending spring break for students only until March 23. Students are asked not to come back to campus until then. The staff will be working to see which classes can be moved online following March 23; the goal is limit in-person interactions.
  • Davidson College mandated on Thursday that it would move to remote instruction. It also asked all students who can leave the residence halls to do so. All faculty members will go remote, and the college is offering training for assistance.
  • Queens University of Charlotte followed a couple hours later with a similar announcement. It will move to online instruction for the rest of the semester.
  • Johnson C. Smith University extended its spring break through March 27. Starting March 30, classes will be online only, and JCSU residence halls will close for the rest of the semester.
  • Johnson & Wales University has moved non-culinary lab academic classes online, mandatory March 16 to April 12. Culinary labs are suspended for two weeks, March 16 to March 29.
  • Winthrop University will hold classes online for two weeks after students return from spring break, March 23-April 3. Dorms are only open to students with extenuating circumstances, will university approval.
  • Wingate University has suspended classes through March 21; students have been asked to leave campus by 5 p.m on Saturday, March 14. Classes will resume online March 23.

For more Agenda coverage on the coronavirus, click here. Questions or news tips? Email [email protected].

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