Welcome to the Learning Continuity Guidebook, this post is the second in a nine-part series. Click here to learn more about the guidebook and its contributors.
Whether you call it the digital divide, the homework gap, or something else, we’ve never been able to provide all students in our education system with equitable access to online educational materials and opportunities. As a result, our most vulnerable students get left behind and suffer the most in educational losses. Sadly, the problem is exacerbated by the current health crisis.
Here we’ll share some of the most valuable lessons we’ve learned about providing equitable access to digital learning, along with examples of what others are doing, and resources you can use going forward.
Raise awareness among families
First, lead families to resources that can help immediately. Low-cost programs for at-home Internet and devices already exist, and many have added new resources and toolkits to help districts get the word out to families:
Communicate, then collaborate
Communicate your equity and access goals within your district but also to your community and state.
Many districts have formed teams that reach out to community and state leaders, the private sector, and education stakeholders asking them to help deploy hotspots, provide access to Wi-Fi on buses or provide donations, funds, or other forms of support. The government and the private sector are also partnering to support schools.
Even if your district can’t benefit from these specific programs, use them as catalysts when asking for help.
- Seattle Public Schools, Amazon, and the Alliance for Education brought 8,200 laptops to students.
- Austin Independent School District worked with the city to position metro buses with Wi-Fi in various locations.
- In California, government, education officials, and businesses provided 70,000 laptops to students.
- The city of Gonzalez and T-Mobile handed out free hotspots with unlimited Internet access.
Understand students’ actual access situation
We’ve all heard stories of districts rolling out thousands of laptops only to discover the majority of students didn’t have reliable Internet access. In addition to knowing if students have Internet access, you need to know if that access is robust and consistent.
One way districts can do this is by creating home access profiles that provide detailed data on what students need regarding devices and connectivity. Getting that information takes more than a phone call, you’ll need to dig deeper with tools like surveys and focus groups.
Students may tell you they have access to Wi-Fi and devices, but you need to understand what that looks like. Are five family members sharing one device for school and work? Are students relying on limited cellular data and a cell phone?
Take Lawrence Public Schools in Kansas, for example. They held a focus group while rolling out their 1:1 program, where one student reported, she would rather fail a class than let her teacher and peers know that when her cell phone data runs out, she can’t do her school work online. With that knowledge, the district provided her with a hotspot, and the next semester she made the honor roll.
Plan for students with special needs
Districts also need to consider how to provide remote learning to students with disabilities, ELL/ESL students, and even students living in rural areas where the Internet is spotty or non-existent.
Serving these students can be challenging, depending on their individual needs, but districts and governments are coming up with solutions we can all learn from.
The U.S. Department of Education (USED) has issued some guidance documents for supporting students with disabilities, including this Q&A sheet and this fact sheet.
Colorín Colorado created a comprehensive guide to distance learning for ELL/ESL students.
There are also great examples of districts, like Piedmont City Schools and Lindsay Unified School District taking innovative approaches to help rural students get online.
Follow the funding options
In addition to community and private funding, seek out government funding to support equity and access, and watch for changes to government funding rules.
The FCC has temporarily waived the gift rule that prohibits E-rate program participants from accepting free broadband services and devices for telehealth and remote learning. Schools and libraries can now also open their Wi-Fi networks for public use without losing their E-rate funding.
New federal funding is also popping up:
- The federal CARES Act provides $13.2 billion for K-12 and will reimburse all COVID-related purchases from 3/1/20 to 12/31/20, here’s a breakdown by state.
- Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund
- Emergency Educational Connections Act, would provide $2 to $4 Billion to help ensure students have Internet access.
- The HEROES Act would provide $5.5 billion toward closing the digital divide.
Equity and access isn’t a pandemic problem. Districts should be prepared to provide ubiquitous home access to learning for all students all the time. It’s time to close the digital divide for good.
Next, education leaders share their advice, experiences, and ideas on how to 'Secure & Sustain Funding'. Follow us on social media to stay up-to-date with new entries in this series, or subscribe using the form below.
As we continue through the series, we’ll share resources and best practices from trailblazers and districts leading the way. Here are some that stand out for their vision, expertise, and usefulness.
Districts to follow
Leaders to learn from
- Candice Dodson, Executive Director SETDA
- Dr. Gregory C. Hutchings, Superintendent Alexandria City Public Schools
- Luvelle Brown, Superintendent, Ithaca City School District
Practical tools and news you can use
- Use the FCC Broadband Map to find ISPs offering service in your area
- Digital Promise Resources for Supporting Learners with Disabilities
- Supporting multilingual learners (MLLs)/English language learners (ELLs) during the COVID-19 Shutdown