As students prepare for the upcoming school year, Bank of America and local partners are arming them with technology to push forward efforts to close Mecklenburg County’s digital divide.
Bank of America announced today that it will donate 10,000 new Chromebooks to select students enrolled at 69 Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools, including five Title I high schools and their feeder elementary and middle schools.
Kieth Cockrell, Charlotte president of the bank, said although insufficient access to digital resources has long been a problem for residents, it worsened due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Stay-at-home orders created further challenges for the almost 56,000 households within Mecklenburg County already without internet access.
The coronavirus forced school buildings to close and the school district to transition to remote learning, scrambling to get laptops and iPads and mobile hot spots into students’ homes. Still, some fell behind. [The district launched Camp CMS this summer to address unfinished instruction and the impacts of Covid-19 on classwork.]
“Seven out of 10 teachers assign homework requiring access to the internet, and studies show that 80% of the job opportunities that are posted are posted exclusively online. That’s why we’re really excited about this coalition we’ve established,” Cockrell said. “We’re hopeful that we can play a very active role, not only with the students but for these families, and have a lasting impact.”
Bank leaders worked with CMS and school social workers to identify the 150 families that will receive the Chromebooks before the start of the 2021-2022 school year. At an upcoming distribution event, Novant Health will provide Covid vaccinations and help schedule appointments for back-to-school immunizations. The City of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County also partnered in the efforts.
Organizers said most of the selected families have broadband access. Those who don’t will be offered assistance from organizations such as E2D and Digital Charlotte.
Pat Millen, founder and president of E2D, hopes the donation of 10,000 Chromebooks creates a domino effect for other corporations in the Charlotte area. He suggested that the distribution will close about 25% of Mecklenburg’s digital divide.
“Charlotte could and should solve its digital divide for virtually all of its households by the end of 2022,” he said. “The solution for the remainder of households that still need computers is sitting there hiding in plain sight in the skyscrapers of Charlotte, North Carolina.”
Millen founded his nonprofit in 2013 by refurbishing computers from local companies and providing them to low-income families. Since then, he says, E2D has donated 16,600 refurbished laptops to families in need.
The partnership with Bank of America is unique in that E2D will be working with new devices. His team will handle technical aspects, such as scanning the devices and adding barcodes before they are distributed. His lab techs are CMS students.
“E2D hires students from CMS high schools, trains them how to do the work, and then we pay them $16.50 an hour to refurbish community computers that are going right back into the communities in which they live. So it’s sort of like a beautiful ecosystem,” Millen said.
Still, Millen said, substantial progress must be made before the digital divide can be eliminated.
“For there to be equity, everyone has to have access to the same digital tools,” he said. “And if you’re a family living on the wrong side of the digital divide, there can be no equity, and frankly, you will fall farther behind.”