When schools shut down in mid-March during the initial surge of the COVID-19 crisis, many Florida students went back to houses without easy access to computers and internet connection — which are necessities for online classes.
What’s more, some students just didn’t log on to their distance-learning classes. And some families didn’t have internet or laptops at all.
Now, more than 600,000 low-income families can receive free 100GB of internet per year over the next five years, First Lady Casey DeSantis announced in a Florida Children and Youth Cabinet meeting Tuesday.
The effort is a partnership with T-Mobile and is designed to reduce the digital divide in technology and help close the achievement gap in how students perform, based on poverty, race and other factors.
T-Mobile plans to “ensure Florida families have internet access to supplement the hard work achieved in the classroom,” a press release on the announcement read. That would offer free hotspots and free high-speed data for Florida K-12 students who participate in school lunch programs.
The T-Mobile program does not include providing laptops or other computers, but some school districts already have laptop initiatives. In April, Gov. Ron DeSantis announced that, through a partnership, 32,000 laptops would be distributed to 34 school districts throughout Florida to assist with distance learning needs at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I never have felt that the government is the sole solution to any problem — you really have to harness the private sector, the non-profits, the faith-based communities, everybody to get together on the same page and to go in the same direction,” Casey DeSantis said at the Florida Children and Youth Cabinet meeting.
The initiative coincides with T-Mobiles national campaign Project 10Million, which works to provide low-income families with access to internet and data in an effort to close the “homework gap.”
The Pew Research Center defined the homework gap as the amount of “school-age children lacking the connectivity they need to complete schoolwork at home” in a report at the start of school shut-downs during the pandemic.
At the Youth Cabinet meeting, Peter Vargas, Director Public Sector and Education, South Region for T-Mobile, described 100GB of internet as “about 5,000 hours of internet research, 140 hours of streaming videos, 200 hours of online test prep…100GB covers a lot of needs.”
Vargas then said that T-Mobile will connect 632,000 households over the next five years and the company plans to connect 123,000 Florida families every year during the five-year span.
The press release on the announcement said that “school administrators can apply for the program by providing ZIP codes for students that participate in the school lunch program.” Schools would then distribute the hotspots with help from T-Mobile for set-up and technical support.
Vargas said that T-Mobile is “ready to roll — right now” to begin connecting low-income families in Florida to the internet.