The pandemic has exposed deep inequities in our country—including the gaping digital divide in our education system, and its damaging impact on students across the country.

The Charles Stewart Mott Foundation is attempting to narrow that divide for students in its home state of Michigan, launching programs in its community, school district and across the state.

Access gap

When the pandemic hit, school districts around the country abruptly shifted to remote learning, and administrators, teachers, and families scrambled to adapt. Many families lack digital devices, internet access, or both, and there have been media reports from around the country about connectivity deserts and students forced to tap into Wi-Fi in local library parking lots so they could do their homework. Analysis of Census Bureau data by the nonprofit, USAFacts, concluded that 4.4 million U.S. households with students lack consistent access to a computer; 3.7 million do not have internet access.

According to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center, 59% of low-income parents say their children face digital obstacles to completing their schoolwork. Another Pew report found that Black, Hispanic and low-income students were more likely to lack connectivity than their white and higher-income peers.

As awareness of the digital divide has grown, a number of national and community philanthropies have stepped in to boost students’ digital access, as IP has previously reported. In California, for example, philanthropists teamed up with corporations to create the Californians Bridging the Digital Divide Fund. Meanwhile, recent ballot measures in Chicago and Denver aim to guarantee broadband access to all local residents.

Local support for learning

The Mott Foundation, which was created in 1926 by Charles Stewart Mott, an engineer and director of General Motors, is based in Flint, Michigan. When the pandemic first hit, Ridgway White, the foundation’s president and CEO, reached out to the local school district. “We asked Flint Community Schools, ‘How can we help?’ White recalled. “At the time, they thought they could meet the need with existing resources, but we provided some support for hot spots and parental controls.”

When Flint schools remained shuttered this fall, the Mott Foundation stepped in again, this time with a $1,051,000 gift to provide Flint Community Schools 1,200 Chromebooks and 1,400 mobile Wi-Fi hotspots.

The foundation recently increased its support for Flint students by granting $1 million to five Flint-based community centers to provide a home away from home for students to study online. “Every child deserves to have a safe and nurturing place to learn,” White said. “Many parents and guardians still need to go to work and can’t be home to help with virtual learning.” The support will allow the centers to increase staff, purchase digital devices, upgrade internet connectivity and provide personal protective equipment and school supplies.

State of connectivity

This week, the Mott Foundation took its efforts statewide, providing $300,000 for an initiative that aims to make broadband internet access available to all students and educators in Michigan. The initiative was launched by the Michigan Association of Intermediate School Administrators (MAISA) and Michigan Education Technology Leaders.

The plan is in direct response to the many gaps in connectivity revealed by the pandemic. “Our schools discovered a large inequity in internet connections last spring, as educators and students across Michigan turned to online learning,” says Dr. William Miller, MAISA’s executive director. Research estimates that 500,000 students and educators across the state lack adequate internet access.

The Mott funds will support the initial planning phase of the program, which MAISA estimates will take four months.

An essential resource

For Ridgway White, the pandemic highlighted a reality that was already hiding in plain sight: the critical role of the internet for student success. “In today’s world, it’s virtually impossible for a young person to succeed in school without internet access,” he said. “It’s as critical as any other essential resource.”

A recent article in The Atlantic argues that the digital divide reflects a tremendous governmental failure of will: “The United States government has historically not seen fast internet as something everyone should have, like it does water or even phone service, and the consequences are becoming frighteningly apparent.”

Will the events of 2020 push the U.S. to address its digital divide once and for all? To do so will demand a comprehensive government effort, and the president-elect himself has indicated that’s what he has in mind: “We should be spending $20 billion to put broadband across the board,” Biden recently told the New York Times. White believes philanthropy can play a key role: “Philanthropy can’t replace government, but we can be a catalyst for change in areas like clean water for Flint residents and closing the digital divide. That’s philanthropy’s best role, I think, to provide out-of-the-box thinking and seed funding, to lay the groundwork for a future that is more inclusive and better for all.”