Hundreds of thousands of Michigan students lack internet or computer

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

At a time when the state's K-12 students are displaced from school buildings during the COVID-19 pandemic, at least 300,000 lack internet access or a computer at home, according to a partial survey by Michigan school officials.

Volunteer Nicole Neveau prepares laptops to be picked up by parents during a technology distribution at Henry Ford II High School in Sterling Heights. Utica Community Schools is providing around 2,000 computers to families to support online learning initiatives.

The Michigan Association of Intermediate School Administrators surveyed the state's 56 intermediate school districts in early April and found the unconnected students tended to be concentrated in rural or low-income areas.

According to partial survey results that came back Friday representing 969,554 of the state's 1.5 million students, 30.7%, or 295,499 students, lack sufficient internet access, and 31.2%, or 302,160 students, lack access to a device.

Local districts completed the survey individually. Complete survey results are expected in coming weeks, officials said, and will be shared with state lawmakers and the Michigan Department of Education.

Prior estimates from the survey had put the number of students lacking connectivity at 600,000, before local districts provided their own data.

As school districts implement distance learning plans for students at home for the rest of the school year, a lack of connectivity remains a vexing issue for many students, parents and educators.

"There is no single solution (including hotspots) that can realistically provide consistent and reliable access to every household in the state," a memo from the school administrators association said. "It is recommended that any funding allocation be based on locally identified needs versus a flat per-student formula."

The association, which recommends the ISDs manage funds dedicated to connectivity in local districts to ensure students with the greatest need are served first, set 90-day goals to consider as it seeks solutions to the lack of connectivity.

One short-term option may include providing extended Wi-Fi in public parking lots at places such as schools and libraries and equipping school buses with Wi-Fi, cellular or satellite, that could provide access to particularly challenged areas.

Long-term solutions include finding a funding source to connect all Michigan schools and libraries to the State Education Network, expanding access and connecting all homes and business in the state and dedicating annual funding for each student so all districts can procure, maintain and secure devices and related software, the memo says.

"Michigan ISDs are committed to equitable access for all of Michigan students to the tools needed to be successful no matter the challenges we face,” said William Miller, executive director of the Michigan Association of Intermediate School Administrators.

The survey also found many educators and support staff, who are expected to provide remote instruction to students, also lack devices or bandwidth at home.

The survey found of the 90,236 school staffers who responded to the survey, 27.8% lack sufficient internet access and 23.3% lack access to a device.

A lack of connectivity is a major issue in the state's largest school system, Detroit Public Schools Community District, which educates about 51,000 students in K-12.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said most parents have a smartphone at home that can act as a device for their child but lack data plans to support online learning.

"Among our K-8 students, we feel that only 10% of families have access to a device and internet access that can support online learning," Vitti said.

If the district receives a commitment from the business community to fund tablets for families, it has budgeted $3 million for internet access, Vitti said. The district is working to provide all students with access to a device and six months of internet access by May, he said. 

"The conversations with the business community has been very positive, and we are growing confident that an at-scale device and internet access solution for DPSCD families is likely," he said. "We should know more by next week."

Cassie Motes of Sterling Heights received two laptops for her kids during a UCS distribution of laptop computers at Henry Ford II High School in Sterling Heights. UCS is providing around 2,000 computers to families to support online learning initiatives.

Groups of students in Ludington Area Schools, who live in such remote areas they cannot get an internet connection, will travel weekly to Wi-Fi-wired bus stops or churches, where they can download school work on a tablet or grab paper packets of assignments to continue their education back at home.

Jason Kennedy, superintendent of Ludington Area Schools, which has 2,150 students near Lake Michigan, said while all students in his district have a device, they do not all have internet access. Some live in remote areas where hotspots do not work. That includes homes of some teachers.

The Ludington district is purchasing unlimited wireless plans for students who can connect for a total cost of $11,400 for the remainder of the school year.

For students living in areas with no connections, the district is offering several options. Students can pick up instructional paper packets at 10 locations where food drop-offs are underway. These locations include bus stops, school buildings, churches and other community spots.

Kennedy said students also will have the option of bringing their device to one of the 10 locations, where Wi-Fi will be available. There, they can connect to the internet, download iBooks and other content on their iPads, and return home to do the work offline.

"We have buses to deliver food that have wireless on them. Students can use that,"  Kennedy said. "You sit in the parking lot and gain access to the internet."

According to a study by Michigan State University researchers, middle and high school students with high-speed Internet access at home have more digital skills, higher grades and perform better on standardized tests, such as the SAT.

The study found that regardless of socioeconomic status, students who cannot access the internet from home or are dependent on a cellphone for online access do worse in school and are less likely to attend college or university.

Among the study's findings:

• Fifty-three percent of students who live in small-town or rural areas have high-speed internet access compared with 77% of those who live in suburbs, and 70% of those in cities.

• Nine percent of students in rural areas, 6% in small towns, 4% in suburbs, and 5% in cities have no internet access.

• Students from families near or below the poverty line, those who are eligible for free or reduced-cost meals, were 25% less likely to have fast internet access from home and twice as likely not to have internet access at all or to depend on a cellphone for internet access from home. 

Duane Dickerson, 62, of Sterling Heights received two laptops for his grandkids during a distribution of laptop computers at Henry Ford II High School in Sterling Heights.

State board president Casandra Ulbrich said Friday the state and local districts can help find a solution to connectivity for its K-12 students.

"We have huge disparities from district to district in devices and access," she said. "From a state perspective, it comes down to an equity issue. It makes sense for the state to really focus in on this and how we address inequities."

In other districts, such as Utica Community Schools, the issue is not always a lack of devices but rather enough devices for larger families with up to six students.

On Friday, the Macomb County district gave 2,000 computers to families at nine school sites to support online learning.

Superintendent Christine Johns said while 85% of students in her district have connectivity or a device, many larger families with five to six children are struggling with waiting for a turn on the computer.

"I do have some families with no connectivity, but the bigger issue was the queuing of the work," Johns said. "A family with four kids, the parents may only have two computers in the house. Today with mom and dad working from home on the computer, the kids need devices."

The district is using the online platform Schoology for its distance learning plans for the rest of the school year.

Johns said some students are using instructional paper packets at schools, and teachers are connecting with students to make sure they are all engaged.

"Nothing is going to replace face-to-face, and we are going to leverage these tools to give children opportunities, and we will continue to build this out," Johns said.

"All of us need to think about how we are giving all kids equal access to online learning. There are 1.5 million students in the state. This is a heavy lift. We need to work to get all our kids there."

Shannon Wade of Shelby Township picks up four laptops for her kids during a technology distribution at Henry Ford II High School in Sterling Heights. UCS is providing around 2,000 computers to families to support online learning initiatives.

The district is working with Comcast to provide hotspots in some areas, such as apartment complexes. Johns said buses with Wi-Fi are also under consideration.

"We are a large district, and we want all kids online," she said. 

Two experts from the University of Michigan School of Public Health say K-12 school closures have long-term implications for students.

Julia Wolfson, an assistant professor of health management and policy, and Roshanak Mehdipanah, an assistant professor of health behavior and health education, issued a report this month that says closing schools for a long period has the potential to seriously exacerbate disparities between lower and higher-income students.

"First and foremost, the biggest immediate needs are making sure students who need food can get it, and students who need additional support connecting with teachers, classmates and learning opportunities get that technical support," Wolfson said.

The state needs to figure out how to support families with other needs because there will be stark differences in how different students/families are able to navigate learning from home, Wolfson said.

Students who don't have access to internet, computers or other ways to access digital content will be at a serious disadvantage, Wolfson said, so it is imperative the state and local school districts figure out how to ensure all students have the ability to continue learning during this time.

"Now that we are in this for the long haul, swift action needs to be taken to ensure existing disparities in educational outcomes are not exacerbated," Wolfson said.