The COVID-19 pandemic and rush to distance learning has brought fresh attention to the student digital divide.
According to the most recent Household Pulse Survey, a rapid response survey the US Census Bureau created to assess the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, nearly 4.4 million households with children still lack consistent access to a device and 3.7 million lack consistent internet access. Given these statistics, it’s no wonder that educators are still struggling to get devices and internet access to students.
Educators have come at the digital divide challenge from many, many angles. Here, we pass along ideas that teachers, principals, and administrators have shared with us in the hopes that they can help others in the education community get devices, Wi-Fi, and training to their students.
"The economic, educational, and social inequalities between those who have computers and online access and those who do not."
The Issue: Not all my students have Wi-Fi access.
Wi-Fi access is not a given for all Americans—particularly for low-income families and/or those who live in rural communities that are underserved by internet providers.
Allow students to access school Wi-Fi from outside the building.
Many educators I’ve spoken with are encouraging families without Wi-Fi access to bring students to their school parking lots where they can tap into the building’s internet while remaining outside. It’s a weather-dependent and limited solution, but it did help students who use Curriculum Associates’ i-Ready Personalized Instruction program meet their weekly online lesson requirements.
Provide families with mobile hotspots if you can.
West Homestead K–8 Center in Homestead, Florida, has supplied more than 97 mobile hotspots—devices that use cellular signals to create local networks—to their students since the move to remote learning. They’re still trying to meet the demand for even more.
Allow a limited number of students to enter the school building.
At the Edna M. Scott Elementary School in Leland, Mississippi, a significant number of students live outside town in rural areas that don’t have Wi-Fi. For this reason, Principal Barbara Lucas was worried about her English Learner (EL) students falling further and further behind their peers. To get students online, she encouraged her school’s EL teacher to schedule sessions with students (no more than two at a time) where they would come into the school building and work from a classroom.
Take advantage of free or low-cost internet access options.
Numerous service providers, both large and small, have stepped up to help low-income families get or stay online during the pandemic. Companies are delivering free internet connections, waiving installation fees, suspending late charges, and more. Though these offers are incredibly generous, they also often come with time limits.
Families will eventually need longer-term solutions, so it’s worth checking to see if there are affordable service options in your area. For example, Internet Essentials, a program from telecommunications giant Comcast, supplies low-income households with low-cost, high-speed internet. Families do need to submit an application, and program participation is limited to areas where Comcast internet service is available.
The Issue: My students don’t own laptops or tablets.
In a May 2020 Curriculum Associates webinar, former Secretary of Education John King made a passionate argument for additional, emergency federal funding for schools. His argument rested, in part, on the fact that children who didn’t have access to laptops or tablets weren’t going to be able to keep up with online learning. “We had a digital divide pre-COVID, and now we're seeing that play out with kids who don't have enough devices in the home,” King said.
Give students computers through your district or school.
Here are the ways schools we’ve profiled in our digital-divide success series have supplied devices to students:
- At R.V. Daniels Elementary School in Jacksonville, Florida, the district took charge of making sure each student had a device. Students were able to meet educators or staff at various community locations to “check them out.”
- Edna M. Scott Elementary School had students fill out a survey and request Chromebooks™.
- West Homestead K–8 Center was able to hand out 800 laptops to its 912 students.
Activate corporate relationships—if you have them.
During a June 2020 webinar, Dr. Darin Brawley, the superintendent of Compton Unified School District, explained how his schools were able to leverage their partnerships with tech companies to supply students with devices. “If I were to look at the response to the pandemic and distance learning, the partnerships that we established with Apple, Verizon, and Digital Promise Leap Innovative Schools truly enabled us to respond in a manner that most districts did not,” Dr. Brawley said. Compton Unified was able to ensure that 100 percent of its students who needed a device had one. (You can read a summary of this webinar, which featured author Daniel Pink, in another post.)
Use smart phones for assignment submissions.
Resilient students are using cell phones (which are often borrowed from family members) to keep up with classes as best they can, and educators and education companies are trying to make it easier for them to do so. For example, the College Board allowed students taking AP exams to upload pictures of their written exam answers to a testing portal. It was a resourceful, but ultimately imperfect, solution. The College Board system ended up being overwhelmed by the number of images and students had to retake exams. However, the idea does demonstrate the kind of creativity distance learning requires and serves as an idea that educators can adapt and make work on a smaller scale for student assignments.
The Issue: Families aren’t all “technical wizards,” and devices need repairs.
If I had to choose just one mantra to repeat for the duration of remote learning, it would be just two words: Be patient. Why? Because when technology is confusing or a device isn’t working like you think it should, patience is the beginning of every solution.
Facilitate drop-in device repairs and troubleshooting while maintaining social distancing.
West Homestead K–8 Center allowed students and families to come and stand in socially distanced lines at the school for help with their laptops and other devices. “We were fixing computers, handing out computers, handing out hotspots,” Dr. Burke explained. “We even fixed computers that weren't Miami-Dade County computers.”
Record videos to help families use devices, online platforms, and learning programs.
In a spring 2020 webinar entitled Remote Lessons Learned: Chronicles of a Second Grade Teacher, Nélida Pagan, a Grade 2 teacher from The Walt Disney Magnet STEAM School and member of the Curriculum Associates Extraordinary Educators Class of 2020, shared that she creates instructional videos for families about the apps and programs their children are using. She’s made videos that show how to use attendance software, Google Classroom, assignment submission forms, and more. “As many video tutorials you can do for your [families], I would suggest doing it,” Pagan told webinar attendants. “Most parents aren’t going to be technical wizards.”
If you receive the same question several times, it’ll be worth your effort to create an explainer document or video. Plus, you don’t need to have a film degree or buy a bunch of equipment. Most cell phones, tablets, and laptops can record high-quality videos and sound.
Pro Tip: Record your screen as you navigate software to quickly create an easy-to-understand, step-by-step tutorial. Your computer might have this function built in, but if it doesn’t, you can use a videoconferencing program to record your screen.
Use visual guides to help parents who don’t speak English, don’t read or write, or struggle with technology.
West Homestead K–8 Center used images and video tutorials to communicate with and instruct parents and guardians who spoke languages other than English or Spanish and/or couldn’t read nor write. They kept the videos very short and, like Pagan, focused on simple how-to explanations.
Chromebook™ is a trademark of Google, LLC.