In North Carolina, school buses equipped with Wi-Fi hotspots are bringing internet access to underserved areas. In Texas, a school district invested in its own transmission towers to expand its Wi-Fi signals’ reach. One high school district in Arizona has committed to contacting every single student, every day, to check in on how families are coping and what other resources they need, as they navigate the coronavirus crisis.
Across the country, students are now forced to learn remotely—many until the end of the school year. The switch to remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed and exacerbated what equity advocates call the “digital divide,” the lack of access to a working device and a functioning, high-speed internet connection, explains Allison Socol, assistant director of P-12 policy at the advocacy nonprofit the Education Trust. That “working” part is especially important during the pandemic, she says. “Districts really have to make sure that they have practices in place to provide IT support and to repair devices, because an iPad is only good if it turns on and connects to the internet.”
The digital divide goes hand in hand with the “homework gap,” that distance between students who are able to do homework at home and those who have to go somewhere else to access the equipment or infrastructure necessary to complete after-school assignments. The current situation has exacerbated the homework gap “but also put a big spotlight on what that means to not have a device and be connected outside of school,” says Karen Cator, president and CEO of Digital Promise, a nonprofit created by Congress to improve learning opportunities through innovation.
Digital Promise and the Education Trust recently partnered to create a guide for advocates on how school districts can meet the needs of all their students while they’re distance learning. “We looked at this document as triage,” Cator says. “First, let’s make sure that every student has a device and the internet; then, let’s make sure that every student has access to resources, and on down.” It pays particular attention, she adds, to the students who need special kinds of services—students learning English, with disabilities, or whose caretakers can’t teach them at home every day.
The guideline outlines 10 questions to ask school districts about how they’re meeting the needs of all students, from “How are you ensuring all students have access to the devices they need to fully participate in distance learning?” to “How are you measuring student progress to ensure students and families have an accurate picture of student performance for this school year?”
But it can’t be only on district leaders to ensure students have the tools and support they need to learn remotely. It should be, and in many places has been, a community-wide effort. Lindsay Unified School District in California and the Morris School District in New Jersey worked with the private sector for community Wi-Fi programs that give families free at-home internet access. Community organizations, such as those that work with immigrant families, can be tapped as a resource to help districts connect with and check in on all students. Google worked with California’s governor to provide 4,000 Chromebooks and free Wi-Fi to rural students.
These solutions may not be flawless. North Carolina’s drive-up Wi-Fi plan—which was funded with donations from AT&T, Duke Energy Foundation, and Google—may not work for families who can’t drive kids to a Wi-Fi hotspot any time they need internet access. But “there’s no perfect solution to this extremely difficult problem we’re in,” Socol says. “If ever there was a time to not let the perfect be the enemy of the good, it’s right now.” Doing something to try to reach underserved students, equity advocates say, is better than not doing anything.
Recent surveys conducted by the Education Trust asking parents about their experiences in this new norm have made it clear, Socol says, “that families are not experiencing this pandemic equally, and that low-income families and families of color in particular are much more likely to say that they’re concerned about their student falling off track.” While schools are physically closed because of the coronavirus, kids will have missed between 30% and a full year of learning, depending on the subject and situation, she adds.
Education inequalities existed before COVID-19, but the pandemic will have made them worse. As schools and cities try to make remote learning work for students, advocates hope that these lessons, and these innovations, outlast the current situation. “My hope is that through this, we will figure out as a country how to make sure that everybody has access to the internet, and everybody has access to a device to connect online,” Cator says. “It’s just such a core part of the fabric of life, and leaving a segment of the population out is not okay.”