The "digital divide" is a phrase heard often these days, referring to an infrastructure gap between those with computer and internet access and those without. This concept has not only been illuminated, but exacerbated, during the COVID-19 pandemic when nearly every aspect of our lives is remote out of public health necessity.
A year ago, in April 2020, the Pew Research Center found that 53% of Americans deemed the internet "essential" during the COVID-19 outbreak in no small part due to the fact schooling became entirely virtual. While a majority might recognize this technology as vital, an unfortunate truth is that Detroit Public Schools Community District (DPSCD) surveys indicated that 90% of its K-12 students lacked an appropriate device and adequate internet service when polled as classes went remote.
Early in the pandemic, the Lions realized the urgency of this issue and sought to address it. Enter the Connected Futures initiative, a program in which a group of corporate and foundation funders partnered with DPSCD to address the digital divide with DPSCD students. The Lions, through Detroit Lions Charities, donated $50,000 in support of Connected Futures to help provide tablets and internet to all DPSCD students.
With the support from many local corporations and foundations, during this school year more than 48,000 devices equipped with one year of LTE data service and technical support have been distributed to students allowing them to access online learning materials from home. Phase three of the project began this spring as DPSCD distributes remaining devices to new Connected Futures enrollees.
"Detroit Lions Charities care about this community. (The Lions) support for our Connected Futures initiative helped provide a tablet, internet service and technical support to every Detroit Public Schools Community District student, making possible virtual learning during our COVID school closure periods," said President and Chief Executive Officer of the Detroit Public Schools Foundation Pam Moore. "We are grateful for (their) ongoing generosity and partnership."
As a direct result of the Connected Futures campaign, each of the 50,000 current DPSCD students have received an educationally appropriate device as well as internet and technical support for the entire 2020 – 2021 school year.
In an additional dedication to helping narrow the digital divide further after seeing the immediate impact of Connected Futures, the Lions are also facilitating two NFL Foundation Digital Divide Grants to the Pontiac School District and the Pure Heart Foundation this year.
Like so many schools, the Pontiac School District's requirement for remote and in-person one-to-one mobile electronic devices increased significantly at the onset of the pandemic, though the district was already in a high need category prior with 81% of students qualifying for free and reduced lunch. In partnership with the NFL Foundation's Digital Divide Grant, the Lions are providing more than $20,000 in funding to purchase laptops and Google Chromebooks for the district.
"The District is super excited to be a recipient of this grant," said Pontiac School District Director of Special Services and Student Equity Arnella Jamison, Ph.D. "The grant will definitely support our Special Education and ESL (English as a Second Language) departments as the district strives to level the digital playing field for our staff and students in meeting their technology needs as we provide instruction, services and support during this challenging time."
Preceding this support, the district was not able to assign electronic devices to some paraprofessionals – those who work with and co-teach with special education teachers – contracted ancillary staff like therapists and nurses, or to Cognitively Impaired (CI) and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) classrooms.
Pure Heart Foundation, a Detroit organization which embraces children with incarcerated parents and empowers them to break the cycle of generational involvement in the criminal justice system, is a Detroit Lions Inspire Change partner facing a digital divide outside of a specific school curriculum. As such, the Lions promptly identified Pure Heart Foundation as another beneficiary of the NFL Foundation's Digital Divide Grant.
In most cases children with incarcerated parents face barriers such as housing instability, homelessness, educational and emotional insecurities, abuse, and experience additional unspoken trauma from trying their best to navigate and survive in their community. Studies suggest that due to this instability, youth with an incarcerated parent are seven times more likely to be incarcerated instead of educated.
Now, these children are facing even larger gaps due to the digital divide including the inability to connect with an incarcerated parent due to COVID-19 visitation lockdowns and lack of access to technology which leaves them unable to have educational, emotional, and mental care.
With the aid of the NFL Foundation's Digital Divide Grant, the Lions are providing $9,000 in funding to the Pure Heart Foundation to provide the technology, internet and programming for a virtual learning center allowing youth to connect with their parent through video chat and receive essential educational, social, and emotional support.
"Children of incarcerated parents are often forgotten, and it is partnerships like The Detroit Lions Inspire Change Initiative and The NFL Foundation Digital Divide Initiative that affords Pure Heart Foundation the opportunity to grow, elevate our mission and fill a gap for youth who's the silent victims of mass incarceration," said Pure Heart Foundation CEO and Founder Sherelle Hogan. "Providing wraparound services and interrupting a digital divide that essentially blocked resources for our young people will give them now an opportunity to be seen, heard, and still supported through this global pandemic. We are grateful to have local and now national support for our scholars. On behalf of Pure Heart, thank you for elevating our mission and helping us address the silent struggles children with incarcerated often face."
This virtual learning center will be the first of its kind at Pure Heart Foundation.
The COVID-19 pandemic brought myriad injustices into stark focus and the Detroit Lions looked to do what they could to bridge the digital divide as it became more evident, with this focus continuing into 2021 and beyond.