The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in the closing of schools across the country. As millions of teachers, students, and parents braced for the transition to distance learning, one of the biggest questions was how school districts could ensure that students in every home had the devices and internet connection they needed to succeed.

Panicked and pressed for time, schools sent out surveys to get a hold on which students had suitable computing devices and internet access at home and which did not. As the distance learning debate went on, some concluded that if school systems couldn’t guarantee distance learning for everyone, they shouldn’t provide it to anyone. Others believed that schools would need to buy computers and internet service for everyone, regardless of whether they already have them.

The Technological Gap

Is there a technological gap between homes of varying socioeconomic status, and can it create barriers to fully participating in remote learning? Absolutely, and it must be addressed. However, roughly seventy-five percent of students in the US have good internet access and suitable devices. What we do need is to assure, but not necessarily pay for, internet access and adequate devices for all students.

The good news is that it’s not as hard as it sounds. Nor is it as expensive as you might fear.

In 2013, the University of Maryland and the City of College Park launched College Park Academy (CPA), a public charter school where 100% of the curriculum and one-third of the instruction is online. One of the first challenges the CPA board faced was making sure that all students had the devices and internet connections they needed to work. Ultimately, the decision was made to purchase computers for every student — to a tune of hundreds of thousand dollars from the school’s budget.

Within a few weeks of opening, CPA’s principal made two astute observations. First, some students didn’t take good care of the computers, because they weren’t “theirs” - they belonged to the school. Second, many kids asked, “Why can’t I use my own computer? It works perfectly well.” This was a good question.

Prior to the start of CPA’s second year, I called on Prince George’s County Public Schools’ IT director, Wesley Watts, for advice. He told me that other school systems, including Fairfax County, Virginia, had launched a Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) program where students who had devices that were up to the job of education could use them. Those who didn’t were provided with them.

The CPA board surveyed parents and students to see what they wanted to do. The results were striking: one-third of parents said they wanted their child to bring their own device, one-third wanted CPA to provide one, and one-third said they were flexible either way.

Listening to our parents and students, we launched our first BYOD school year. The overwhelming majority of students had adequate devices or purchased them upon learning what capabilities their devices needed. A few students wanted to lease a computer from CPA, so we offered that option. The majority of students also had good internet access at home. For those who didn’t, we provided subsidized service from their providers, at a very low cost.

Today, 98% percent of CPA’s students (40% of whom receive free/reduced meals) bring their own devices. Of course, kids still break them, lose them, or leave them home from time to time. For those reasons, we have dozens of backups available every day.

Preparing for the Fall

This fall, most school systems are going online. Providing a device and internet connection for all 900,000 Maryland students would cost taxpayers roughly $300 per student, or $270 million, per year. By adopting BYOD, the state could bridge the digital divide — with $200 million a year left over for teachers, counselors, books, supplemental programs, building maintenance, and more.

The Bottom Line

Technology will never replace the human spirit or the value of teachers, but it has improved our access to knowledge. Some of the richest curriculum is available online. All students deserve access to it.

If we want to erase the digital divide without breaking the bank and sacrificing other critical resources, a combination of BYOD (for those who prefer it and can afford it), and no or low-cost leases for those who can’t, is the answer.

It’s good for the kids. It’s good for the schools. It’s good for education. And it’s good for the taxpayers.

Jim Rosapepe is a Maryland State Senator serving the Prince George’s and Anne Arundel Counties. He was founding Board Chair of College Park Academy and a member of the Board of Regents of the University System of Maryland.

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