Digital transformation. This phrase has become as synonymous with our nation’s response to COVID-19 as social distancing. It is an all-encompassing phrase that refers to the shift to digital service and solution adoption to enable business continuity in the wake of nationwide shelter-in-place orders. Municipalities are rapidly migrating from paper-based to paperless citizen delivery models. Business leaders are meeting with employees and clients using video conferencing technology, and even local, small business fitness centers are offering virtual classes to replace in-studio sessions. It has been a powerful, albeit unexpected revolution with positive long-term potential coming as a result of the presence of the deadly coronavirus. It is also benefiting school districts working hard to connect with students even though they have been forced to close their classroom doors. There is one huge hurdle to clear, however: educational equity.
Equity in education means making sure that every student has the support they need to be successful. It requires putting systems in place to ensure that every child has an equal chance to succeed. Not every student has access to digital technology or high-speed Wi-Fi. Technology gaps impact a disproportionate segment of our nation’s students—mainly those from lower socioeconomic status and who are often in greater need of academic support and outreach. According to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, a division of the United States Department of Commerce, 14 percent of U.S. households with school-age children do not have access to the Internet. Most of those households are in rural areas and make less than $50,000 annually. Many with Internet access do not have a broadband connection. According to the Pew Research Center, 17 percent of adults are only able to access the Internet from a smartphone.
School districts across the nation are finding innovative ways to support students who do not have access to modern technology to help ensure that social distancing does not create detrimental gaps in student academic progress. Their innovative approaches to education inspire us, and remind us, daily, that not all heroes wear capes.
To connect students to their teachers and enable digital learning, many schools across the nation raced to provide students with affordable laptops and mobile hotspot devices. Some districts are procuring such devices through grants and loan programs, while others were able to identify internal funding sources. The Northshore School District in the State of Washington distributed 4,000 devices and around 600 mobile hotspots to families. It was the first district in the country to move to emergency online instruction.
Mobile Hotspots on Wheels
As a creative alternative to issuing students individual mobile hotspots, some districts are sending Wi-Fi-enabled school busses to park in easily accessible common areas in local parks or YMCA parking lots. Students are encouraged to hop aboard, connect, and learn. Some school buildings themselves are becoming mobile hotspots. They are amplifying their Wi-Fi signals so that students can sit in the parking lot (at a safe distance from one another) or their homes, if close enough to access the Internet, to complete distance learning assignments. Some area libraries are doing the same.
The Keep Americans Connected Pledge
Thanks to the Federal Communications Commission’s “Keep Americans Connected” pledge issued on March 13, many Internet Service Providers (ISP) are waiving late fees for existing customers and increasing data caps for mobile hotspots. The efforts aim to help alleviate the financial burden on families using smartphones to link school-issued laptops to the Internet so that students can engage in online classes and complete work. The ISP Spectrum has offered free service for 60 days to customers who have students at home, and Comcast is offering 60 days free for new customers that meet the low-income eligibility requirements of its Internet Essentials program.
In some school districts, the rapid issuing of personal computing and access devices is simply not feasible; however, that has not stopped creative educational problem solvers. The Los Angeles Unified School District has partnered with its local PBS station to create a remote-learning television program. Thanks to the efforts of the two entities, students can watch Ken Burns documentaries that have been mapped to state standards and episodes of the science documentary series, NOVA, that are appropriate for middle school students.
Paper and Analog Modalities
There is an excellent reason why schools relied on paper as the foundation of their educational engagement strategy for generations. After all it’s easy to access, affordable, and there are no barriers to use. Some districts have issued books and paper take-home work packets to students to completely alleviate the need for Internet access during the stay-at-home mandate.
Ensuring Educational Equity
COVID-19 has put a spotlight on the availability of modern engagement technologies for teachers and students and the digital divide. In order to work toward educational equity, educators cannot let access to technology be the reason why students fall behind in their educational progress. Whether school districts provide access to technology in more area homes or rely on analog methods, what is most important is that no child feels isolated and that no child is left behind in their development until school doors can reopen. This is a lesson that we can bring forward into post COVID-19 and make sure all students have equal access to learning.
What are your thoughts? What is your district doing?
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