Closing the Internet Access Gap for Madison's Students

remote learning girl at computer

Donations to MCF's COVID-19 Priority Fund helped provide WiFi hotspots to Madison students without reliable internet access at home.

When schools closed abruptly in March, Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD) officials began working to develop plans for virtual learning. Delivering Chromebooks to kids without a computer at home was the first step in making sure all 27,000+ Madison public school students could participate in virtual learning. The next step involved making sure they all had access to the internet.

That second step was definitely the bigger hurdle – one that MMSD needed to overcome to ensure that all students have access to virtual school until in-person learning is safe again.

Internet Access Is Crucial

The pandemic has really highlighted the crucial role internet access plays in modern life, and obstacles people without access encounter. Unfortunately, families face many barriers to reliable internet access, barriers that disproportionately affect economically disadvantaged students and students of color.

“The costs associated with providing the infrastructure needed to ensure that all of Madison’s students can reliably access the internet to continue learning virtually during the COVID-19 pandemic were completely unexpected and unplanned, but we knew we needed to make it happen,” says Chad Wiese, Executive Director of Building and Technical Services for MMSD.

To bridge the access gap, MMSD reached out to Madison Community Foundation (MCF) with a request for funding to help purchase WiFi hotspots and data subscriptions for 1,900 families who lacked stable internet access at home. Thanks to the generosity of our donors, MCF was able to help meet this need with a grant from the COVID-19 Priority Fund.

With Access Secured, MMSD Could Focus on Engagement

“As we asked our students, families, and staff to rapidly switch from in-school learning to virtual learning to keep people safe during the COVID-19 pandemic, there were, and continue to be, so many things to consider from an instructional perspective,” explained TJ McCray, MMSD’s Director of Instructional Technology and Library Media Services. “How do we keep students engaged? How do we maintain our social emotional connections with them? How do we meet the needs of all learners, those who need extra support, those who are advanced, those who are learning English?”

Kevin Xiong of HAIB performing Sap Sap
Kevin Phoojywg Xiong of HAIB performed a song called Sap Sap as part of the virtual celebration of the Hmong American Day Read Aloud. Internet connectivity is key to allowing schools to continue celebrating the many cultures represented among MMSD families, students, and staff.

With school starting on a virtual platform in September, this becomes even more important as the district shifts from emergency response to creating an environment intended to foster potentially longer-term learning in the fall. “Having devices and internet access for all students allows us to focus on the instructional perspective, and to build responsive supports for students, families, and staff,” McCray said.

Making the Playing Field More Even

The achievement gap between Madison students is strongly exacerbated by lack of digital access. Purchasing hotspots not only helps provide access to virtual learning during the pandemic, but also could be used in other ways in the future to even out the playing field. 

“We are very appreciative of the support of Madison Community Foundation,” Chad Wiese said. “Your gift helped us create a learning environment where all students can access the essential tool of the internet.”

Read more Stories of Impact. 

We would love to connect with you! Get our newsletters.