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City of Norwalk announces initiative to help bridge digital divide as the fall semester approaches

When schools across the state had to quickly transition to online learning last spring, not every student was able to participate due to the lack of technology.
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As schools inch closer and closer to reopening this fall, cities in Connecticut are looking to do whatever they can to help students when it comes to distance learning. 

When schools shifted to online learning abruptly last March, it highlighted the problem that many children across the state did not have the proper technology to keep up with their classmates. Some families face the lack of high-speed internet, others don't have a laptop or tablet for their children to use. It's referred to as the "digital divide".

On Monday, the City of Norwalk announced an initiative to try and help the 7-8 percent of children who did not have high-quality, reliable internet service.

Norwalk Mayor Harry Rilling said the initiative is a "huge step forward" toward achieving universal access to high-speed internet. The goal is to ensure 1,000 families with school-aged children would have free access to high-speed internet for one year and are connected to digital literacy coaching, local housing, mental health, food, and other social service resources.

Mayor Rilling was joined by officials from Norwalk Public Schools, representatives of Dalio Education, Altice/Optimum, foundation representatives, and families Monday when the announcement was made.

According to Mayor Rilling, Norwalk has budgeted $150,000 for the Connectivity Initiative to provide staff support for in-need families. 

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Dalio Education is the lead supporter of the initiative, providing $315,000 to Norwalk Public Schools which will contract with Altice/Optimum to provide high-speed internet to the 1,000 Norwalk families. This will be supplemented with a $50,000 grant from the Be Foundation. The Per and Astrid Heidenreich Family Foundation and The Ritter Family Foundation have each provided grants of $125,000 to support the Community Services Department and the Family Navigators. 

“We know that access to the internet is critical for families and students, not only for distance learning, but for educational research, job opportunities, and social connections," said Mayor Rilling. "We also understand that those lacking reliable internet service and access to needed social services are disproportionately people of color, people with low income, students with disabilities, and nonnative English speakers. The Connectivity Initiative is designed to ensure our most vulnerable families have equitable access to vital services in Norwalk."

 “This Initiative would not be possible without the generous support of the philanthropic community, spearheaded by Dalio Education. The support of Barbara and her staff laid the groundwork for other supporters to sign on, including Altice/Optimum which will provide the internet connection. It is thanks to Barbara and her team that the Connectivity Initiative is coming to fruition.” “COVID-19 has highlighted the consequences of the ‘digital divide’ so prevalent in our community,” Rilling added. “As schools transitioned to digital learning this spring, we saw that some students had difficulty fully participating due to inadequate and frankly unequal access to educational resources. We saw students sitting outside of the library to connect to WiFi. We also know that some families lack the basic knowledge required to navigate the various digital educational tools.”

Here's how the initiative is designed to work:

The Connectivity Initiative is structured in three tiers depending on family and student need. 

  1. Tier I provides reliable high-speed internet connection to those who currently lack service. 
  2. Tier II provides digital literacy support for families and students to effectively navigate virtual learning provided by Norwalk Public Schools. 
  3. Tier III provides families and students with personal Family Navigators through the City’s Community Services Department who will help them navigate the social services network and connect them with resources, such as food, health care, and housing.

“I am thrilled that this creative collaboration is expanding connectivity for 1,000 school-aged children and their families in Norwalk,” said Barbara Dalio, Founder and Director of Dalio Education. “By working together with great partners like the Ritters, the Heidenreichs, and the Be Foundation, as well as Altice/Optimum, we are making progress step-by-step in closing the digital divide. And thanks to Mayor Rilling and Superintendent Estrella all children in Norwalk now have connectivity, enabling them to learn.” 

Altice/Optimum has created a special discounted package for this Initiative and internet service provided to Norwalk families will be 100 Mbps with a hard-wired connection, ensuring the most reliable speeds. 

Officials said Chromebooks and laptops are now available to every student in the district so that all children can participate in virtual learning opportunities.

Families who opt-in for distance learning, non-native English speakers, and families with low incomes will be prioritized.

“The Connectivity Initiative aligns with Norwalk’s strong commitment to ensuring equity in education and excellence for all students,” said Dr. Alexandra Estrella, superintendent, Norwalk Public Schools. “The district’s unexpected transition to distance learning this spring put a spotlight on the issue of internet and technology access. When families lack a reliable, high-quality connection to online resources and virtual learning, it puts their children at a disadvantage, especially in these challenging times. On behalf of our students, we are grateful for the support, resources and commitment made today by all of the partners in this Initiative.” 

The Connectivity Initiative and supporting grants require Common Council approval. Both will be on the agenda for discussion and vote on Tuesday, August 11 at 7:30 p.m. The meeting will be broadcast on Zoom and YouTube. To view the meeting or submit comments, visit norwalkct.org/meetings.