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Detroit — A $23 million plan to "bridge the digital divide" for Detroit's 51,000-student district will put computer tablets and internet access into the hands of families as lessons remain online because of the coronavirus outbreak.

Detroit Public Schools Community District Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said Thursday that the plan will aid 90% of the district's students who have not been able to consistently access curriculum from home during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Starting in June, the district plans to begin distributing tablets with LTE internet connectivity to every student to enhance face-to-face learning over the summer until the school year resumes, Vitti said.

A coalition, including DTE Energy Co., Skillman Foundation, Quicken Loans, the City of Detroit and its school district, launched the initiative called Connected Futures.

Vitti said the initiative allows learning to continue beyond the classroom. The district went to great lengths to print lesson packets, distribute meals and ensure that learning continued after school buildings closed in mid-March. Regardless, the majority of students could not access online learning tools or connect with teachers, he said.

"Nothing will ever replace a teacher. We know that a teacher is a central component to learning in that face-to-face instruction is essential," Vitti said. "But online learning allows learning to be augmented supplemented in time lost over the summertime."

Vitti and Jerry Norcia, president and CEO of DTE Energy, made the announcement at Eastern Market on Thursday, joined virtually by Bill Emerson, vice chairman of Quicken Loans and Rock Holdings; Tonya Allen, president and CEO of the Skillman Foundation; as well as the Rev. Wendell Anthony, president of the Detroit chapter of the NAACP; and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan.

From the funding, $17 million will be put toward Iview tablets equipped with reading and online programs. Another $6 million will be put toward six months of internet access for families. Afterward, if parents are still in need of internet access, the district will continue to fund it, Vitti said.

They’ll recycle the tablets each year as new students enter the district.

Norcia said digital connectivity is a necessity that benefits entire families. It gives students a level playing field in today's interconnected world and parents access to online job applications and workforce development opportunities, he said.

"The COVID-19 outbreak really has highlighted the inequities that exist in our city and urban areas that we call the digital divide," Norcia said. "... I'm humbled by the response that has happened in our community to rally for this problem."

But it shouldn't be limited to only students in the public school district, said Allen of the Skillman Foundation. She said the coalition is already planning to expand support to the 36,000 other Detroit children who attend other schools.

"We want all children in the city to win, and we believe this partnership will make that happen," she said. "They will be able to learn remotely, and we will be creating a model for other districts in the state to mimic."

The plan began three weeks ago with an outcry from Anthony, the president of the Detroit branch of the NAACP. Anthony reached out to numerous city leaders and to Norcia on the disparities of families in need. 

Anthony said it might have taken a pandemic to aid the thousands of families in Detroit, but "out of chaos comes construction," he said. 

Duggan touted the coalition as a “miracle that will change the inequities in the city" for current and future generations.

"I have to be the luckiest mayor in America, where most of the country is reeling from a health and economic crisis," he said. "The religious and corporate and philanthropic community in Detroit is rallying together to address an inequity that's plagued our children for many years, and it's remarkable how far we've come since early March."

While the leaders celebrated the new plan, parents with children already enrolled in the district say they hope it lasts.

Latonya Peterson, a mother of four children who also cares for her nephew and grandson, watched the broadcast Thursday with high hopes.

"It’s real ideal, but I don’t want it to be something they start, and one or two years later forget about it," said Peterson, 37. "I don’t want it to wash away like everything else. In two or three years, my kids will be finished, but my grandson will need it, too."

Peterson's son, Joshua Jackson, is a ninth-grader at Southeastern High School, and her nephew, Patrick Reed, is a ninth-grader at King High School. Joshua is a special-needs student suffering from narcolepsy, and Peterson hopes officials will find ways to make the tablets inclusive.

"(Quarantining) has been hard. The students are on different learning tracks and it's overwhelming," she said. "I hope they design something for special-need kids. They really need to consider verbal and eye impairment and other needs like my son, how is a computer going to keep him engaged?"

The district's Thursday briefing with DTE comes just over a week after the district rolled out its 10-week distance learning plan, calling for students to spend an average of three to four hours per day on schoolwork amid the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The plan has teachers working Monday through Friday to engage students in lessons via telephone or virtually with online work and it provides learning opportunities for students through the end of the school year in June.

The state's school districts began submitting distance learning plans to their local intermediate school districts for approval on April 8 after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on April 2 ordered all K-12 school buildings to close for the remainder of the school year, which typically ends in mid-June.

At least 300,000 lack internet access or a computer at home, according to a partial survey by the Michigan Association of Intermediate School Administrators.

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

According to partial survey results 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.

Under the state's plan, Detroit students are focusing on core subjects including math, reading, social studies, science and English language arts. There also are weekly opportunities for families to incorporate physical activity, wellness and arts enrichment online.

The district has said it's spending $3.2 million on printed packets for students who don't have internet access. Those were made available beginning this week at 19 of the district's grab-and-go food resource spots and 31 other school sites. 

cferretti@detroitnews.com 

srahal@detroitnews.com

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