New effort aims to address students’ lack of internet access

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — Education and local government advocates on Monday announced a new effort aimed at addressing a lack of computers and internet access that has hampered online learning for tens of thousands of poor and urban Connecticut students during the coronavirus pandemic.

The project is being led by the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, which represents cities and towns statewide, and Dalio Education, a philanthropic group led by billionaire hedge fund founder Ray Dalio’s wife, Barbara Dalio. They are hoping to enlist other groups and local officials in the effort.

Plans call for studying where high-speed internet access and computers are most needed and releasing a report with recommendations at the end of August. The groups have not yet announced what the total financial commitment will be, but say there are plans to provide aid including matching funds.

“The problem of connectivity has existed for the past 20 years but it never came into the picture in such a strong way as when the teachers had to start teaching online,” Barbara Dalio said during a video conference with reporters. “It’s really tragic, and how can you talk about equity if ... all of these students are not able to join?”

Learning switched to online when all schools in the state closed earlier this year because of the coronavirus. Officials are now preparing plans to reopen schools for the new school year, but Gov. Ned Lamont and state education officials have said they are making students’ access to online learning a priority.

A survey of school districts across the state taken in June by the state Department of Education showed nearly 10% of students, about 50,000, lacked access to a computer or other online device and nearly 6%, more than 29,000, didn’t have internet access.

The survey also found that about 4% of students, about 21,000, had not participated at all in online learning, while another 22% of students, about 116,000, had either partially or minimally participated.

The report said family, health and trauma issues were a barrier to online learning for more than 17% of students, nearly 92,000.

Andrew Ferguson, Dalio Education’s chief education officer, said it will take millions of dollars to tackle the “digital divide” between poor and wealthier families.

“The costs are huge but the benefits we think are even bigger,” he said. “In other words, once you have access to the internet ... think about the benefits that we are able to achieve.”

Dalio Philanthropies had been in a partnership with the state that called for the organization to donate $100 million for public education initiatives, which was to be matched by the state with $100 million in taxpayer money. The partnership approved buying 60,000 laptop computers for high school students for nearly $24 million in April, plans that are still moving forward.

But Lamont announced in May that the public-private Partnership for Connecticut had been disbanded “due to a breach of trust,” alluding to leaks that resulted in negative media coverage.

Barbara Dalio has said the partnership wasn’t working because of political infighting and blamed Republican leaders of the state House of Representatives, who raised questions about the foundation’s dealings and how it was exempt from public records laws.

Joe DeLong, executive director and chief executive of the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, said it will take action by the state and federal governments to achieve universal internet access. He said the initiative announced Monday will help speed up the process.

DeLong said access to the internet will not only help public school students, but also their parents and other adults in their homes.

“It’s about really closing the gap in terms of our economic competitiveness in the state and providing ... opportunity for all of the residents of Connecticut to be able to compete in what really is a new marketplace.”