YPSILANTI – Eastern Michigan University and the Ypsilanti Community Schools (YCS) are collaborating on an initiative to increase Internet access at no cost to hundreds of families in the school district.
The project, called YPSI LIVE, will provide Comcast Internet service for 400 families for six months. It is supported by the GameAbove EMU alumni group and the Washtenaw County’s Office of Community and Economic Development.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has brought attention to the elevated disparities within our county, our neighborhoods and our schools, including a digital disparity,” said Decky Alexander, a professor at EMU and director of academic programs at Engage@EMU, which is helping oversee the project.
“Given both the urgency and complexity of enrolling hundreds of families, Engage@EMU, in collaboration with the schools, launched a project team to accomplish this goal. Helping to minimize that disparity is not just ethical, but necessary and critical to our overall health.”
Scott Teasdale, who had served the YCS community for more than 12 years while formerly working with EMU’s Bright Futures and EMU’s former GEAR UP grant, is supervising the project.
How the project started
Predicting that schools would be closed due to COVID-19, the YCS team, led by Superintendent Alena Zachary-Ross and IT Director Nikki Jackson, quickly took inventory of students' access to a reliable Internet connection at home.
The district did so by conducting a phone survey that resulted in hundreds of responses, in which more than 50 percent of respondents identified as having zero or unreliable Internet connectivity at home.
Armed with that data, EMU facilitated a partnership with Comcast’s Internet Essentials (IE) program. This program provides an Internet connection to qualifying households for $10 per month. As part of Comcast’s response to the COVID-19 crisis, it relaxed some of the qualifications for IE and offered two free months to new customers, Alexander said.
How the project is working
The GameAbove Foundation and Washtenaw’s Office of Community and Economic Development provided the financial backing to support at least 400 YCS families with an additional four months of Internet connection, bringing a total coverage of six months offered by the collaboration, Alexander said.
Under guidance from Nikki Jackson, Marquan Jackson, director of EMU’s Family Empowerment Program; YCS technology specialist Jerilyn Lynn and the District’s Continuity of Learning Plan, the school district committed 32 members to spend time reaching out to every family in the District.
District staff provided hundreds of households with a required registration code and enrollment information along with a familiar voice/face during an unsettling time, Alexander said.
Teasdale trained each team member in the enrollment and documentation process and continues to address various questions, serving as a liaison with Comcast and the school district. Teasdale said that the vast majority of the families identified in the survey have been contacted and the project has progressed to reaching out to every remaining household in the district.
“It is our hope that YPSI LIVE will serve as a catalyst for a deeper conversation and action surrounding Internet access within Washtenaw County,” Alexander said.
Eliminating the resource gap
Jackson says that in supporting students with at-home instruction, YCS centered its efforts on creating a more equitable environment. That included launching a 1-for-1 device initiative for every student at YCS, to ease the burden of parents having to purchase or provide technology at home, so their children could participate in online enrichment programs.
However, in providing technology for students at home, the district needed to address issues for those that can’t use that provided technology online; that is, to receive and participate in online instruction and enrichment.
"Are we really addressing equity or did we just inadvertently create an even larger gap?" Jackson asked. "This is where YPSI LIVE can come in and help us achieve balance in providing the necessary Internet connectivity for the district’s students, not only to participate in at-home instruction, but thrive unhindered with all the tools provided to them.
"YPSI LIVE aims to be a connection, hoping to ease the burden for families in providing sometimes unattainable or challenging resources for their children. This can help us ensure we give every student an opportunity to participate, to continue learning, and achieve enrichment during this unprecedented time."
Engage @ EMU is EMU’s primary entry way to enhance, navigate and cultivate collaboration and partnerships between the University and business and community entities. Engage assists EMU in affirming and improving several parts of the University mission and vision:
About Eastern Michigan University
Founded in 1849, Eastern is the second oldest public university in Michigan. It currently serves nearly 18,000 students pursuing undergraduate, graduate, specialist, doctoral and certificate degrees in the arts, sciences and professions. In all, more than 300 majors, minors and concentrations are delivered through the University's Colleges of Arts and Sciences; Business; Education; Engineering and Technology; Health and Human Services; and, its graduate school. EMU is regularly recognized by national publications for its excellence, diversity, and commitment to applied education. For more information about Eastern Michigan University, visit the University's website.