BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — This school year, the classroom has been the kitchen table for most children. In low-income schools in Birmingham, the pandemic has exposed longstanding issues and created new challenges with technology access and equity.

Sheila Tyson worked to get technology into the hands of students who needed them (WIAT Photo)
Sheila Tyson worked to get technology into the hands of students who needed them (WIAT Photo)

“The children did not have internet at home, nor cable. And I was like, ‘Are you joking?’” said Sheila Tyson, a Jefferson County Commissioner.

Her district, in Birmingham’s most populous county, is home to Washington Elementary School. It’s one of 16 schools in the city system that are considered “failing” by the state of Alabama.

Already lacking technology, the school needed to suddenly provide computer access to children who only had it inside actual classrooms and local recreation centers. But, amid the pandemic, the City of Birmingham cut budgets and slashed funding to those local recreation centers. The move halted access to technology for children living near the neighborhood.

That’s when Tyson saw a need and tried to fill it.

“This has grown beyond me,” she said.

Bringing the technology to the students

With the help of DC Blox, a technology company based in Atlanta, Georgia, Tyson connected with The Loyalty Foundation. Its goal is to bridge the digital divide in America and make technology available to students regardless of income level. It’s now found a way to provide 50 Google Chrome Books to students in Tyson’s district.

“All of a sudden this has ballooned into what we are doing now, where we’re going to be following up to make sure not only that they get the computers, but that they know how to use them,” said David Neeman, the chairman and founder of Loyalty Foundation.

Recreation Centers help provide technology training for families (WIAT Photo)
Recreation Centers help provide technology training for families (WIAT Photo)

Once students in the neighborhood are assigned the laptops, their families are given the chance to be trained to use them. Despite limited staff and hours, local recreation centers are providing that training to parents and grandparents so they can help the students with school work.

“They just come in and they will walk them through the whole process of learning how to operate and help with the assignments that the students have received from their schools,” Tyson said.

For this low-income neighborhood, the pandemic took inequities that already persisted and made them harder. That’s the challenge Tyson, DC Blox, and Loyalty Foundation are trying to fix.

“It showed everybody that if you did not have access to technology, in particular to education, you were not going to get an education,” Neeman added.

Now, Tyson says she plans to find a way to get internet access to the students who don’t have it.
And, she already has a good resource at her disposal: Loyalty Foundation does similar work to bridge technology inequity in schools around the country.

Partnering with the national non-profit Solutions Journalism Network, Nexstar stations nationwide are telling unique stories about how the pandemic has exposed inequities for students and the solutions some groups have found to bridge that gap.

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