Minorities at a disadvantage when it comes to online schooling in North Carolina

Letha Muhammad is a Southeast Raleigh mom of three tackling COVID-19's strain on the digital divide through her group Education Justice Alliance.

"There are definitely people out here hurting," Muhammad said.

During the pandemic, the group is working with the Wake County Public Schools System to help African American and Hispanic families obtain access to laptops, tablets and hotspots.

School buses to serve as Wi-Fi hot spots around North Carolina for remote learning

"Talking to one parent who has nine children and five of them are in the district...she is overwhelmed," Muhammed said. "She hadn't gotten access to all of the digital stuff but was feeling pressure. Her children needed to feel engaged but she didn't have the resources to do it."

Wake County is the state's largest school district. Three percent of households in the county don't have a computer; 13 percent don't have access to high speed internet for digital streaming.



It's an issue ABC11's Joel Brown highlighted back in March just before schools across the state closed.

Shontay Hawkin, a single mother in East Raleigh was sharing a used computer that hardly worked for her three children.

"It would be challenging. It would be very challenging," said Shontay Hawkins.

But after the story aired, a Raleigh biker group donated two laptops to the family.

According to Pew Research, 86 percent of white Americans own a computer or laptop compared to just 58 percent for blacks and 57 percent for Hispanics.

School leaders say right now, communities of color are struggling the most.

"I think the digital divide exists for the same reasons that we see divides in other aspects of life -- when we're talking about employment, healthcare, you name it," said Dr. Rodney Trice, assistant superintendent for Equity affairs for Wake County Public Schools.

He's working with a team to think of ways to lessen the achievement gap during remote learning.

Tutoring sessions with churches and civic groups is one strategy Trice says is being heavily discussed for next school year.

"It is unfortunate when you have a pandemic such as this and much of education is focused on remote learning and the use of those resources, communities of color will typically come up short because that's not where they focus their economic resources traditionally," Dr. Trice stated.

The digital divide and COVID-19 is also impacting higher education. Historically Black Colleges and Universities are feeling the pressure to get students equipped with laptops and hotspots.

"Virtual learning has been an interesting challenge," says Dr. Racheal Brooks, coordinator for e-learning at NC Central University. "Interestingly, this challenge has led to one of our greatest triumphs - the development of support through the strategically identifying faculty with online teaching experience to scale instructional continuity efforts on our campus."

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Dr. Brooks says surveys were used to determine which students needed immediate help.

Staff and liaisons collaborated with professors to transition coursework online.

"We developed an instructional lesson that goes into how faculty may retool the way in which they approach their face to face instruction now that we're in this remote space," said Dr. Brooks.

Right now, computers are still being shipped out to NCCU students returning this fall.

At Saint Augustine's University, Cy Young is professor in the mass communications department.

"I hate to assume. But I have to assume that they're getting it," he said about his virtual experience with students. "Students will let me know if they don't get it."

For students at Saint Augustine's who've yet to receive laptops and hotspots, the university says professors call students on the phone to go over coursework.

Some assignments are even submitted via text.

"I just did a virtual day party to raise laptops for our students," said Maria Lumpkin, Interim president of Saint Augustine University. Those who want to donate can do so here.

The United Negro College Fund, the organization that awards scholarships at five private black colleges in North Carolina, is also providing laptops to students.

"Since March 13, we've seen a huge need for emergency funding. We've always had a campaign where we raise money for students with emergency needs but it's been nothing like this," said Tiffany Jones, who is UNCF's area development director in Charlotte.

WATCH: Jones explains how UNCF is helping black students
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Tiffany Jones, the United Negro College Fund's area development director in Charlotte, said her organization is seeing a huge need for emergency funding for black students.



Jones says there are recent cases where the organization has given money to students who may be homeless.

"We've had to help them pay their rent, provide them with food, it's been very challenging. It's like a trickle-down effect. You have parents who've lost their jobs, where they may have been able to help in the past, they can no longer help with tuition cost," said Jones. "We're trying to fill in the gaps as best we can. But of course we're just one organization and we just simply can't help everybody."

Back in Letha Muhammad's home in Wake County, her 13-year-old and 16-year-old son and daughter are using multiple laptops for homework the family owned before the pandemic.

Muhammad represents families of color on the other side of the spectrum -- not as impacted by the racial digital divide.

"Even if it's something I don't feel personally. I feel it because I'm connected to community. My community," said Muhammad. "As we move through this pandemic, there is an opportunity for us to examine why these things exist and close these gaps."

To learn more about Muhammad's group, Education Justice Alliance click here.
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