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How to Address Big Tech Equity Challenges

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Sam Urban Wittrock, a history teacher at W.W. Samuell High School in Dallas, shows an example of one of the many WiFi hotspot devices his school district is giving to students. Schools nationwide are gearing up to do a better job this academic year making sure digital devices and WiFi access are available to all students.

Sam Urban Wittrock, a history teacher at W.W. Samuell High School in Dallas, shows an example of one of the many WiFi hotspot devices his school district is giving to students. Schools nationwide are gearing up to do a better job this academic year making sure digital devices and WiFi access are available to all students.

—Tony Gutierrez/AP

The digital divide turned into a yawning chasm for far too many students this spring.

Educators have long known that a sizable percentage of students have no way to access learning at home, either because they don’t have devices, high-speed internet, or both.

But those concerns could be papered over while students were in school. When school buildings abruptly closed—along with other sources of computer and internet access, like libraries—districts were left scrambling to support students, many of whom were already vulnerable to the effects of digital inequities.

Just consider the numbers: An EdWeek Research Center survey in April found that 62 percent of leaders in districts with poverty rates under 25 percent said everyone who needed home internet access had it. For leaders in districts where the poverty rates exceed 75 percent, the reported rate of access was just 31 percent.

As districts prepare for the upcoming school year, they’re faced with addressing that huge gap before it grows even wider. They are starting by building on hard lessons learned from full-time remote learning this spring. And they are trying to see what worked, and what didn’t, tackling digital equity problems in other districts around the country.

It is a monumental task, but district leaders we talked to said having the summer to build more strategic plans to address these challenges has been a big help.

“We were building the plane as we were flying the plane,” recalled Bernadette Ball-Oliver, the executive director for high schools at Savannah-Chatham schools in Georgia. “And we were looking to the sky and looking to the ground for parts.”

Education Week interviewed district leaders from across the country to gather lessons learned on digital equity this spring that can be applied for the 2020-21 academic year. There is no silver bullet solution, but there are four important takeaways for addressing remote learning equity issues during COVID-19.

Lesson 1: Organize material into one learning platform

In Savannah-Chatham, the call to close schools came while the district was on spring break. While that gave teachers and administrators a handful of days to prepare, the remainder of the spring semester was still what Ball-Oliver would describe as “crisis learning,” rather than true virtual education.

District officials “hit the phones” to find out which children needed digital devices, in order to make plans for distribution and also to find out how many paper packets of learning materials it needed to produce. The district found that some of the information it gathered on student internet access changed as the closures wore on. Parents who may have said that they had a device initially were thinking about weathering a few weeks of disruption, not a few months, Ball-Oliver said.

Teachers were also using a hodge-podge of different methods to provide instruction, even inside the same schools. While some teachers were regularly reaching out via Zoom and other platforms to students, others were not, and that lack of consistency was creating its own set of educational equity issues.

What many districts learned is that effective, equitable remote learning was almost impossible without a learning management system. And even for districts that had an LMS prior to the pandemic, low teacher and student engagement with those systems was no longer acceptable.

Savannah-Chatham purchased a learning management system this year called itslearning, which offers a one-stop shop for managing grades, announcements, assignments for teachers, and curriculum materials, Ball-Oliver said. Other big providers of learning management systems include Google Classroom, Edmodo, Schoology, and Canvas.

The district is also investing in professional development to help teachers use the materials available to them.

The district recently decided that all students will start the school year with full-time virtual learning until health data show that it’s safe to resume face-to-face instruction. Georgia is among several Southern and Sunbelt states that are seeing a surge in infection rates.

Lesson 2: Get creative at bringing the internet to underserved communities

Internet access in Louisa County, Va., a large, rural county between Richmond and Charlottesville, has long been a challenge, said school officials. And it’s not a problem easily solved by distributing wireless hotspots, because even wireless service is spotty in some parts of the county.

Recognizing that the district needs to offer more-robust remote learning opportunities in the fall, the district has created wireless mobile units and deployed them strategically around the county. The solar-powered units, which cost about $3,000 each to build, provide wireless service within a radius of about 150 feet.

They are parked in well-lit locations, such as parking lots of churches, fire departments, even a local Dairy Queen. The idea is that families can travel to a location if needed and use the service to upload and download assignments. Some of the “wireless on wheels” mobile units can handle more-demanding tasks, such as internet videoconferencing. Other units, which must rely on satellite internet, don’t have enough bandwidth for that task.

This approach proved to be more convenient for families than asking them to use wireless internet at the school. Students may have had to drive up to 40 minutes, just to get to one of the school locations. And it’s easier for the school district to do than outfitting a bus with wireless service and driving it to a location. That would require a driver and leaving the bus running to power the wireless internet unit.

With a dozen already in the field, the district hopes to eventually have 32 “WOW units” in place. The project has also been a positive boost to a community that has long wanted more broadband internet access. It’s not the same as being able to wire up individual homes, but it helps address digital equity issues during a difficult time, district officials say.

In the spring, Louisa County focused primarily on distributing paper packets with review material. But “we knew there were enhancements that our students needed and that our teachers wanted to do,” said Kenny Bouwens, the district’s director of career and technical education, who has helped construct the “WOW units.”

Lesson 3: Accelerate virtual lessons to make up for lost learning time

Prior to the pandemic, the Charleston, S.C., school district had crafted a plan to offer focused professional development and support to its lowest-performing schools, Belcher said. The goal was to work with educators to help accelerate learning at several schools.

That plan is now even more relevant and urgent given the amount of learning loss that happened in the spring during full-time remote learning, especially among academically struggling students. The company Leading Educators will be brought in to work with educators at several schools to accelerate learning.

“We’re investing, as a district, to better serve students who need help,” said Karolyn Belcher, the district’s chief academic officer. “We’re trying from past experiences to up our game.”

With coronavirus cases sharply increasing in the state, the district also plans to offer a virtual academy for parents who want to keep their children at home learning remotely this school year. The district has invested in several ways to keep learning on track for students, especially those who are struggling academically or have special learning needs.

“We’re trying harder to have tools that are tightly aligned to our standards, tightly aligned to our curriculum that can go back and forth between different modalities,” said Belcher. In other words, a curriculum that can easily switch between in-person and virtual instruction.

For example, the district has invested in Zearn, an elementary math curriculum that is built for both face-to-face and virtual practice. Having that curriculum is easier than expecting teachers to retrofit a variety of approaches, Belcher said.

The district is also asking a group of teachers to record lessons. In a virtual environment, some students will be able to watch the videos, while the classroom teacher works more closely with a small group that may need extra help.

Lesson 4: Enlist parents as partners

The Prince George’s County, Md., school district recently announced that it will start the 2020-21 academic year with virtual education for all students, at least until January.

That means every parent and guardian in the district will be their child’s first stop for “tech support.”

But the district doesn’t plan to let families struggle alone. It is in the process of developing “parent centers” around the county where families can get help with technology. Judith White, the director of the district’s instructional support services center, said the goal is to start by providing parents with the technology help that they need, and then expand to offer more assistance on how they can support student learning.

The system’s pre-existing office for parent support didn’t envision a situation where thousands of parents might need help at the same time. “The simple help desk concept wasn’t enough,” she said—an important lesson learned from the spring.

“We know that we have so many parents who want to help support their child. It’s new learning for everyone,” White said. “We don’t want to misstep, and say, ‘we gave this to your child and we want them to figure it out.’ [Parents] can help.”

> For more on this topic, read: Coronavirus Pushes Schools Closer to a Computer for Every Student

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