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Not all Utah students have access to digital learning



You may have seen them: large black towers, popping up across the state. In the affluent Avenues neighborhood of Salt Lake City, many residents were caught off guard by the sleek, new 5G cell phone towers jutting into the sky over city sidewalks and near cross streets.

The new towers will make cell service uber-fast. Beyond The Books began looking to see where other towers were being constructed, and we found that most were cropping up on Salt Lake City’s wealthier east side.

“There are emerging technologies, and with each new technology there are new divides,” said Vikram Ravi, the chairperson of Utah Communities Connect, an organization working to narrow the tech gap that is often experienced by less advantaged Utahns.

He says when it comes to accessing high speed internet, people with less money and less knowledge about technology are often left behind.

“That map (of where new towers are being built) is a reflection of the socioeconomic challenges and disparities that we face in our country,” Ravi said.

Ngabonziza Elie and his family immigrated to the United States from Central Africa in 2019. Elie, with the help of the International Rescue Committee, has since settled in Salt Lake County with his wife and five children. A year later, the pandemic shut down education. Elie’s children were working to get acclimated with the new school, when they were suddenly forced to begin learning at home. He and his children were not quite ready for learning online, Elie said.

Everything was online, everything was internet,” said Elie. “Before I came to the U.S., I had little knowledge of internet or computers.”

With the help of the IRC, Elie and his family got training on computer usage and his children are learning online.

Beyond The Books has found that while all students have seen educational drops during the pandemic, some groups have been harder hit than others. For example, kindergarteners who are Black (-13.2), Pacific-Islander (-13.3) or Native-American (-20.7) are not reading at level. Experts say some of those drops can be attributed to a lack of technology access.

In the early stages of the pandemic, many districts across the state found themselves scrambling to get kids online. In the Murray School District, they will spend $700,000 in CARES Act money to add internet connection points atop all of their 10 schools and provide hotspots to hundreds of parent to help kids with limited WiFi.

The Salt Lake City School District had to adjust on the fly when schools shut down. They negotiated with internet providers for lower prices and more data. The district also sent hotspots home with families who needed them.

Utah has fared better than most states when it comes to getting everyone connected. Now that the digital divide has pointed out socioeconomic gaps, school districts say they can be mindful of that in everything moving forward.