Daniel is one of Hillsborough County's Tech Connect students who was given a computer and internet support.

By Gwen Rollings

School closures due to COVID-19 impacted Hillsborough County students, teachers and families in numerous ways, but social and economic issues quickly created a digital divide and became a matter of urgency for Hillsborough Education Foundation (HEF).

According to Kim Jowell, CEO of HEF, “Closing the digital divide for our highest needs students has been a top priority since inequities surfaced during the pandemic. We launched our new initiative called Tech Connect in October to continue our work to create equitable access to resources and opportunities for all students in Hillsborough County Public Schools.”

Focusing on the premise that every student should have access and the opportunity to benefit from a high-quality education, COVID-19 presented unique challenges concerning disparities that some families in Hillsborough County face by not having internet access, especially in rural areas, or affording quality internet service.

The Tech Connect program was funded by a grant from the Children’s Board of Hillsborough County and will support nearly 300 families of elementary school students participating in e-learning.

Mindy Taylor, HEF’s Tech Connect program coordinator, said in early November, “Since launching on October 5, we’ve received 48 referrals from public elementary schools across Hillsborough County with more coming in daily. We are working to enroll as many students and families as quickly as possible.”

Funding from the Children’s Board added four full-time staff: a program coordinator and three e-learning coaches. HEF also hired a part-time program assistant for elementary students, but additional funding is needed to support middle and high school students.

Although the grant does not cover the total cost of internet service, HEF has committed nearly $40,000 to ensure more children have the tools they need to succeed. The cost to serve a student with a computer and internet for a year is $640 per child.

Eligible students must be referred to this free program by a student’s school social worker, instructional staff or administrators. Based on the family’s needs, they may receive a computer, one year of internet access and guidance in using e-learning programs, as well as ongoing support and training.

Jowell explained, “Families must weigh a number of personal factors in making the decision between e-learning or attending classes at school. HEF’s Tech Connect initiative supports students and families who choose e-learning but aren’t fully equipped with technology or knowledge to reach their full academic potential from home.”

As the only Hillsborough County nonprofit focused on strengthening public education, HEF continues to work tirelessly to close the digital divide and believes universal access to reliable and affordable high-speed internet is not a luxury, but critical, and should be available to everyone. A lack of resources must not be a barrier for students to learn.

To volunteer, donate or for more information, visit http://educationfoundation.com/programs/donate.