January 2, 2021 - 9:00 pm
In late July, a group of leaders in business and education came to a startling realization: School was starting in a few weeks, and an untold number of Nevada’s nearly half-million students would be excluded because they lacked internet or a computer.
Statewide, school district leaders were unable to confirm that more than 120,000 students had access to reliable internet and a device to participate in digital learning, including 107,332 students in the Clark County School District.
We found this situation unacceptable and unconscionable. These were our most vulnerable students who could least afford to miss chunks of school, let alone contact with the teachers and counselors who often connect them with food, clothing and other basic resources.
In a matter of days, Connecting Kids was born as a subsidiary of the governor’s COVID-19 Task Force. In just four months, this public-private coalition tracked down every student around the state.
This was a marathon effort run at the pace of a breakneck sprint. However, we have demonstrated that we can profoundly impact our public education system if we are united around a singular purpose, agile and nimble, and truly committed and accountable to each other.
Our partners hail from every corner of the state. In Washoe County, a local business, Click Bond, helped format devices for students. In Elko County, Nevada Gold Mines rallied businesses to purchase hundreds of computers. In Carson City, Attorney General Aaron Ford negotiated with T-Mobile to make Nevada the first state to secure more than 18,000 hotspots through their national Project 10Million program. Jhone Ebert, superintendent of public instruction, and Brian Mitchell, director of the governor’s office of science, innovation and technology, marshaled additional resources and solved problems for rural districts where students sometimes live in remote locations without access to most wireless carriers.
Here in Clark County, where nearly 70 percent of district students participate in the free and reduced-price lunch program, the student need was greatest. Led by Communities in Schools, we established a virtual family support center, staffed by up to 150 agents, that fielded more than 45,000 calls from families and connected nearly 18,000 families to reliable internet.
CCSD Superintendent Jesus Jara and the Board of Trustees issued internet subsidies (using Federal CARES Act funds) to eligible families through the center, and they reassigned support professionals and guest teachers to work as call agents. District leaders provided daily data updates.
Dozens of community groups and faith-based organizations spread the word to families. Volunteers, food banks and community organizations distributed more than 300,000 postcards with our center phone number through door-to-door canvasses and food distribution centers. Television, radio and print media provided regular reports on our progress.
Cox Communications authorized center agents to sign up low-income families for their Connect2Compete program and even allowed families without Social Security numbers to utilize their ID number from Mexico. Just in the past two weeks, Cox announced it was doubling the download speed for Connect2Compete families to help those with multiple students.
Municipalities provided staff members to knock on doors as “field agents” to track down the hardest-to-find students and provide them with whatever resources they needed to connect to school. R&R Partners and The Public Education Foundation updated a website and issued e-blasts so the community could monitor our progress and pitch in when they could.
What did we learn from this project that can be applied to future endeavors, especially as we enter a new year sure to be marked by challenges to overcome on behalf of our children?
We rallied around a shared imperative that every student be connected to school and pledged to leave no one behind. We divvied up work between public and private entities and held each other accountable. We recognized what each partner brought to the table. We trusted each other with data, even in periods when the numbers sat depressingly stagnant. In those moments, we came together and brainstormed how to break the logjam.
The collaboration Connecting Kids catalyzed businesses, government entities, nonprofit groups and grassroots parent and advocacy groups. We proved irrefutably that when our entire community comes together, we can achieve the seemingly impossible. No other state has accomplished what we have. Our deep gratitude goes to everyone who played a part.
Connecting kids who are engaged in virtual learning was a giant first step, but our children need so much more. In the coming months and years, they will need us to come through again and again. We have no doubt that, working together, we can again rise to meet the next moment.
Elaine Wynn is the former president of the Nevada State Board of Education. Jim Murren is the chairman of the Nevada COVID-19 Response, Relief and Recovery Task Force.