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District Partnership with AT&T and Connected Nation Builds Equity, Bridges the Digital Divide

The School District of University City’s vision of Learning Reimagined puts equity at the heart of what it does to ensure all students have access to rigorous, modern and relevant learning. That vision further requires the smart deployment of resources to ensure that equity prevails.

COVID-19 put this vision to the test, particularly when students, without warning, had to transition to virtual learning at home. Within days, it became very clear that many of our students, particularly students of color, did not have access to the internet in their homes. This was particularly disturbing given all district students are provided with Chromebook laptop computers or tablets, but our most vulnerable families could not use them at home during lockdown or quarantines. 

COVID-19 was not only disproportionately harming our Black and Brown communities with illness, it was further cutting them off from learning and school.

Part of the solution came in a tiny little black box, thinner than a bar of soap: a wireless hotspot that connects nearby laptops to the internet.

This summer, The District was one of 10 groups chosen in Missouri to participate in AT&T's Connected Nation program which provides free internet and hotspots for households less likely to have access to the internet due to economic or social circumstances. The district is among 100 organizations nationwide to benefit from free internet subscriptions and wireless hotspots to connect 350,000 youth to the educational resources and services they need to thrive in a modern society increasingly dependent on technology for work and daily tasks.

Thanks to AT&T, the District was able to distribute 472 hotspots to student households, providing them crucial connections to their teachers, their classmates and their peers.

The grant effectively serviced more than a quarter of the District’s households, ensuring connectivity with the District - and the global community for years to come.

“This was a gift to our community at a very difficult time,” said Superintendent Sharonica Hardin-Bartley. “What this little device was able to do for my community was unbelievable, so it was a ‘wow moment’ for me and the District.” 

When the pandemic hit, Hardin-Bartley personally started delivering hotspots to student homes. She also saw parents and caregivers getting the hotspots when they drove up to schools to pick up needed meals for their children.

“I host a Zoom with the Superintendent meeting, and we hosted them very regularly at the start of the pandemic. It was then I saw these same parents’ faces on the screen, and that was so powerful! That’s what this device did for our community.”

The grant from AT&T was particularly meaningful for Jomo Castro, regional director for AT&T external affairs. Castro is a 1990 graduate of University City High School. He said U. City Schools utilization embodied the spirit of the grant as it connected its most vulnerable families to school and the global community. Castro said it was clear that U. City needed the  devices to ensure equitable access to education for students with significant household needs.

“Education is the key, whether it’s college, vocational training, military service or certifications. There is a path at UCHS for students to get started,” he said.

Even though most of our students are now back in school five days a week, UCHS junior Michael Simmons said the hotspots remain essential for families that he knew otherwise would not be connected to the internet.

“Students are not only using the internet at home to be able to stay up with school, but it’s become almost an imperative amid a global pandemic that we have ways to access each other digitally or virtually,” Simmons said. “Students use the internet….to connect with each other, which I think is very vital amid such a hard time.”

He continued, “I think we learned through the pandemic that not everything needs to be a face-to-face meeting, and I think that growing up especially in this age of technology we’re going to see that transition into our post-secondary plans and into the workplace.” 

Hardin-Bartley said the hotspots helped the District cross the known digital divide for many students and households of color, and, in some ways, made parent engagement easier. Turnout for virtual student-teacher conferences was better than when they were held in person. Parents and caregivers learned quickly to connect online to classroom assignments and curriculum, she said.

“This partnership is powerful. It’s doing exactly what it’s supposed to do to address disproportionality by addressing those communities who might be left out or forgotten. This is empowering and gives our families a bit of that self-motivation. It gives them a bit of that spark so they can be in charge and work with their…children at home.”